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Senate passes farm bill, again

In just under one year, the U.S. Senate passed a farm bill for a second time Monday, by a vote of 66 to 27.

The 2013 version incorporates nearly all of the amendments offered to the 2012 bill, which passed by a 64-35 vote last June 21. It includes a means test that lowers crop insurance subsidies for farmers with more than $750,000 in adjusted gross income. The bill also includes a conservation compliance requirement for crop insurance that was modified from a requirement in the 2012 bill to make it more workable for farmers. And it ends the direct payment program.

"This bill has been bipartisan from start to finish," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) shortly before Monday's vote. Stabenow lamented the House's failure to pass a farm bill last year but remained optimistic. "The good news is that this year it looks like it's going to be different," she said.

The committee's ranking Republican, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi also urged members to approve the bill.

"This legislation will provide farmers in all regions of the country with a robust and workable safety net, while also reducing by $24 billion dollars the cost of the programs authorized by current law," Cochran said. "This Farm Bill will also encourage and reward protection of water, soil and forestry resources."

The bill drew more Southern support this year, as well as negative votes from important Republican ag committee members, including Senators John Thune of South Dakota and Pat Roberts of Kansas. Both have criticized a target price program championed by Cochran as being market distorting and likely to encourage challenges under international trade rules. Other critics of the target price program, including Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE), supported the bill on Monday.

The bill drew muted praise and continued criticism from the Environmental Working Group. "The Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 considered today by the U.S. Senate includes some important and historic reforms that will improve federal food and farm policy, but it lacks other common-sense measures that would have better protected taxpayers, improved transparency in the crop insurance program and created a level playing field for family farmers," EWG said in a statement.

"Senate leaders refused to permit consideration of other bipartisan reform amendments that would have better protected taxpayers, improved transparency in the crop insurance program and created a level playing field for family farmers," said EWG lobbyist Scott Faber.

The Senate bill got stronger support from another conservation organization, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

"The Senate bill takes several steps toward getting our nation’s farm policy on a more sustainable track by continuing critical investments in economic development and opportunities for farmers, and by making a down payment on long-overdue subsidy reform," said the group's policy director, Ferd Hoefner. "While the Senate subsidy reforms are not enough, they are stronger than policies in the pending House bill.

"The Biotechnology Industry Organization also thanked Stabenow, Cochran and the Senate for including mandatory funding for energy programs and eligibility for renewable chemicals in the bill. The House bill has an energy section as well, but no mandatory funding for it.

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