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Senate passes farm bill

DANIEL LOOKER 02/04/2014 @ 2:47pm Business Editor

The Senate passed the Agricultural Act of 2014 by a vote of 68 to 32 Tuesday, ending a long, sometimes bitter and partisan, slog toward replacement of a 2008 farm law that expired 491 days earlier.

The bill, which is is estimated to cost $956 billion aver the next 10 years, will soon head to the White House where President Barack Obama has promised to sign it. According to the Congressional Budget Office, nutrition programs will account for $756 billion of the newly authorized spending. And it will save $16.6 billion.

In her final argument for the bill just before the vote, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said that the farm bill will save $23 billion when cuts made through deficit-reducing sequestration legislation are added in. It's the same amount that the leaders of House and Senate Agriculture Committees offered to save when the congressional "super committee" met in late 2011 to look for ways to reduce federal spending.

"When you add it all up, it's still $23 billion…" Stabenow said.

Stabenow said the bill consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13 that will be more user friendly, and that altogether, farm bill drafters found ways to end about 100 USDA programs. That includes the most costly commodity program in the last farm bill, direct payments, which are replaced by "a responsible risk management approach that only gives farmers assistance when they experience a loss," according to Stabenow.

"This bill has the support of over 370 groups and counting, from all parts of the country and ideological backgrounds," Stabenow said. 

"I want to thank all of our colleagues for their ideas, for their willingness to put partisanship aside and work together," she said.

In the end, the bill had broad bipartisan support, as well as bipartisan opposition, including some Agriculture Committee members. One, Senator Chuck Grassley, who was disappointed in what he said was a lack of meaningful payment limit reform, voted against it. So did Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who early in the farm bill process argued against even the modest food stamp cuts being considered, which she said would hurt many poor people in her state of New York. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas also voted against the bill. 

The vote in favor of the 2014 farm bill was smaller than the 77-15 passage of the 2008 farm bill in the Senate. After President George W. Bush vetoed that bill, the Senate overrode his veto to pass the bill by a vote of 80-14.

But in today's environment of gridlock, Tuesday's vote was a big victory for Stabenow and the ranking Republican on her committee, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

As Stabenow said in a statement released after the vote, "Many people said this would never happen in this environment, but Congress has come together to pass a major bipartisan jobs bill. Congress has also passed a major reform and deficit reduction bill. Both bills are the 2014 Farm Bill. This effort proves that by working across party lines, we can save taxpayer money and create smart policies that lay the foundation for a stronger economy."

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