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Senate plunges into farm bill amendments
It's rare to see a speech on the Senate Floor that lasts only two minutes, but that's how much time each sponsor of a farm bill amendment had to argue his or her case Tuesday. Opponents had another 2 minutes. So, in the afternoon and early evening, the Senate considered 29 amendments out of 73 that the leadership has agreed to put up for votes.
In the evening, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) praised the progress, but warned that the debate could run into Friday.
"We have to finish this bill and flood insurance this week," he said.
So far, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and the ranking Republican, Pat Roberts (R-KS) have fought back any major changes to the bill that will cost nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, but will also reduce spending by just over $23 billion.
Senators approved by a strong 75-24 vote an amendment by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to cap marketing loan gains at $75,000 per spouse. Grassley has been fighting to cap commodity program payments for years. Tuesday he argued that "we can't have 75% of the payments going to 10% of the largest farms."
Right now, they're not going to anyone, with loan rates far below market prices (the new law continues them at 2008 levels, $1.95 a bushel for corn, for example). But it's consistent with a hard cap of $50,000 set for the farm bill's new shallow loss program and stricter requirements that payments go only to farmers actively engaged in the business.
Another Republican on the Senate Ag Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, argued that "USDA lacks the ability in real time to track the eligibility" so larger farmers would be made to repay some marketing loan gains after receiving them, as well as have a harder time getting loans.
An amendment that likely would have affected more large producers failed. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), wanted to end all farm program payments to anyone with more than $250,000 in taxable adjusted gross income. That's far below the $750,000 cap written into the Senate Ag Committee's bill. Paul said the amendment would affect only 9% of farmers who have AGI above $250,000. The Ag Committee's Roberts, who opposed it, said the amendment would apply to crop insurance and conservation programs. The amendment failed by a vote of 15-84.
Amendments left off the list of 73 may have been just as important as the ones getting votes. Senate leadership had dropped an amendment that would have capped crop insurance premium subsidies at $40,000. But an amendment that's nearly as controversial to most farm groups, one sponsored by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) will come up for a vote this week. It would cut premium subsidies by 15 percentage points for farmers with AGI obove $750,000.
Another amendment that would have added target prices and a counter-cyclical program to the Senate's Farm Bill will not come up for a vote. Chairwoman Stabenow has already said that any counter-cyclical program would have to be included in the House version of a farm bill, which is expected to be marked up by the House Agriculture Committee this month.
Ag committee leaders also fended off several amendments on the food stamp program. Senator Jim Demint (R-SC) offered three that would have cut more than the $4 billion in food stamp spending already in the bill. They were defeated. So was an amendment from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would have restored most of the farm bill's food stamp cuts.
The Senate also defeated an amendment from DeMint that would have ended all USDA loan guarantees. DeMint said he wants to protect taxpayers from liability for projects such as the loans made to the failed solar collector company, Solyndra. But Stabenow said that USDA loan guarantees help support commercial and farm credit lending when farmers face tough times, as well as helping beginning farmers qualify for loans.
""If agriculture in America is going to survive we need to have young people engaged in farming. This amendment would make it much, much harder," she said. DeMint's amendment failed by a vote of 14 to 84.
He lost on another amendment, to end mandatory participation in checkoff programs. "While it's not taxpayer money, we are forcing businesses to do things they don't want to," DeMint said.
Stabenow argued that producers benefit from marketing programs they can't do on their own.
"You've heard of 'got milk?' That came from a checkoff program used by the dairy industry," she told her colleagues. "This is a program that commodity groups vote on; they agree to."
DeMint's amendment on checkoffs failed by a vote of 20 to 79.
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