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More trims to crop insurance?

An amendment to limit crop insurance premium subsidies to America's largest farms is one of some 30 changes that farm groups will be watching for when the Senate begins active debate on its farm bill on Thursday.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who ranks 2nd in Democratic leadership in the Senate, promised Wednesday that he and Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican  deficit hawk from Oklahoma, will offer an amendment to the bill to reduce spending on crop insurance premiums for large farms.

"In our opinion, it is not unreasonable to ask the largest, wealthiest farmers in America to pay a little more for their crop insurance," said Durbin. He noted that federal spending on crop insurance premiums has risen in recent years, along with higher commodity prices, to a level of about $7.4 billion for 2011. 

Crop insurance companies, which have already seen federal support cut twice  since the 2008 farm bill was passed, are still doing well. "By selling these policies, they get a 14% return--not a bad deal," said Durbin, who is Senate Majority Whip. 

Durbin didn't say exactly how he and Coburn plan to trim crop insurance spending, but Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told in an email message today, "We are watching the AGI [adjusted gross income] limit on crop insurance.  Durbin and Coburn will offer that instead of a $40,000 payment limit, I think.  They will probably say something like someone who has more than $750,000 in AGI has to pay 10% more for crop insurance.  Nothing official yet."

This was just part of the opening volley in the farm bill debate. Amendments won't be offered until Thursday, when the Senate may vote, perhaps around noon EDT, on cloture, a procedure that limits debate and also has the effect of requiring 60 votes to approve amendments to the bill. 

Thatcher and our sources at National Farmers Union think that about 30 amendments may be debated. The leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-KS) said Wednesday that they believe the process will take about a week, less than earlier estimates.

Thatcher expects the 30 amendments to include one with an agreement between the Humane Society of the U.S. and United Egg Producers to require twice as much space as currently used for caged laying hens. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has already introduced a separate bill to do that. Other livestock groups fear the HSUS/UEP agreement is a dangerous precedent for more costly restrictions on meat production.

Thatcher also expects an amendment to tie conservation compliance to eligibility for crop insurance, a requirement that was dropped from the farm bill in 1996. 

Earlier this week Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told and other reporters than he plans to introduce an amendment to place payment limits on marketing loans and another to ban packer ownership of livestock.

Although rice and peanut farmers in Southern states feel they haven't been treated fairly by the Senate Agriculture Committee's farm bill, many groups  support it.

Lyle Pugh, a member of the National Corn Growers Association public policy action team, praised the bill at a press conference held Wednesday by Stabenow and Roberts.

"Farmers have sent a strong message that direct payments are no longer defensible and do not provide assistance when it is most needed. Instead, we want a program that will help lessen the blow when farmers are facing years of bad weather or depressed markets," said Pugh, who farms near Chesapeake, Virginia. 

"I would like to thank Chairwoman Stabenow and Ranking Member Roberts for their extraordinary efforts to write a new bi-partisan 2012 farm bill," Pugh said. "We hope Congress passes the legislation this year, to ensure the stability needed to properly plan for future crops."

At the press conference, both Stabenow and Roberts urged quick passage of a bill that passed out of committee in a 16-5 vote in April.

“This bill represents commonsense and responsible reforms that will save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars while strengthening key initiatives that will allow our economy to continue growing and creating jobs,” Stabenow said. “This bill has garnered widespread praise from hundreds of farm, food and conservation organizations for its common sense reforms, deficit reduction, and investments in our economic future. The 2008 Farm Bill is set to expire at the end of September – we must pass this commonsense bill immediately to give farmers the certainty they need to continue growing the economy. Sixteen million American jobs rely on agriculture. The time for reform is now.”


“We’ve performed our duty to taxpayers by cutting deficit spending while at the same time strengthening and preserving the programs so important to agriculture and rural America,” Roberts said. “We’ve cut mandatory spending by $23.6 billion. We’ve reformed, eliminated and streamlined USDA programs to the tune of more than 100 programs and authorizations eliminated. We’ve done it on a voluntary basis and in a bipartisan fashion. Simply put, this bill is commonsense reform and needs to be approved now to provide certainty for our farmers and ranchers to make planning decisions and to help our economic recovery.”

On the floor of the Senate, Wednesday, Stabenow said she's proud of the real reform, cost cutting and bipartisan balance her committee's bill represents.

"The Agriculture Committee is different from most of the other Committees in Congress. Our committee room doesn’t have a raised dais – instead we sit around a table just like families across the country do, and just like farmers and ranchers do after a long day of work in the fields," she said. 

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