Senate Farm Bill Advances To Senate Floor, Can The House Move Ahead?

SARA WYANT

WASHINGTON, D.C.
   Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kans. and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., delivered on promises they’ve been making to the agricultural community for several months. They won bipartisan approval of a new farm bill on a 20 to 1 vote – despite a lot of competing interests and no new funding.
   It certainly isn’t a bill that addressed everyone’s concerns. However, the text held true to what Chairman Roberts told us repeatedly: this is not the time for a revolutionary farm bill. Rather, he aimed to write one that is producer friendly, improves farm programs, is responsible to taxpayers and is done on time. 
   He and Stabenow worked in lockstep to make several changes, including the adoption of a few amendments in committee and a manager’s package of 66 more changes. Here are some of the key amendments:
   • Additional states could fall under the Sodsaver restrictions for crop insurance should their governors decide to do so, under an amendment sponsored by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar. The Sodsaver rules, which apply to only to the six Prairie Pothole states of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota, would reduce premium subsidies for farmers who break up native sod. 
   • An amendment proposed by John Hoeven, R-N.D., and modified by Klobuchar would raise the limits on USDA guaranteed and direct operating and ownership loans. The limit on guaranteed loans would be raised from $1.39 million to $1.75 million. The limits on direct ownership loans would be raised from $300,000 to $600,000 and the direct operating loan would be raised from $300,000 to $400,000.
   • An amendment aimed at building an export market in Cuba would authorize funding from the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program to be used for trade servicing, technical assistance, and trade promotion work in the island nation. “It is high time we explore that market,” said Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, who co-sponsored the amendment. “This is a critical component of building those relationships that will help us establish a trading relationship with a country that is only 90 miles off our shore.” 
   • An amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., would allow USDA to increase the number of precipitation monitoring stations to improve soil moisture monitoring in sparsely populated areas. Thune wanted to introduce an amendment to increase the acreage cap on the Conservation Reserve Program to 26.25 million acres, up from the current limit of 24 million acres and the 25-million cap in the Senate’s version of the bill. The amendment also would have given CRP contract holders more flexibility to cut hay and graze the land. But Stabenow asked him to hold off, citing opposition from the National Wildlife Federation. 
   When it came time to vote for final passage, the lone holdout was Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has long advocated for tougher farm program payment limitations. The Iowa Republican was clearly frustrated that he didn’t have the final version of his amendment ready in time for the committee vote because of some last-minute legal changes in the text.
   Roberts and Stabenow will confront their next challenges on the Senate floor where there will be attempts to further change the bill and possibly trim farm program payments and crop insurance benefits. Votes are expected during the week of June 25th and final passage is expected before the fourth of July.
   While they wait for Senate floor debate, the short-term focus will be on House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and whether he can gain approval of a highly partisan bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. 
   The House farm bill was defeated May 18 when a group of conservatives demanded the House first act on immigration policy. Thirty Republicans and every Democrat voted against the bill, which failed, 198-213, bringing cheers from the Democratic side of the chamber who disliked the bill’s reforms to the food stamp program. 
   Last week, GOP leaders reached a deal to hold votes on an immigration bill negotiated with moderates and a second, favored by conservatives, that was developed by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. Those votes are expected later this week.
   After the immigration votes, GOP leaders plan to ask the House to reconsider the farm bill and then hold a second vote to pass it, Conaway said. He’s got the backing of GOP leaders, but it’s still unknown whether those who voted against the farm bill in May will vote for the same measure in June. 
   If the House can pass a farm bill yet this month, House and Senate negotiators will have plenty of time to work on a final version. 
   “That would give us July, August and part of September to get this thing done and ready to go to the president’s desk before it (the 2014 farm bill) expires,” Conaway told Agri-Pulse. ∆
   Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Senior Editor Philip Brasher contributed to this report. 
   SARA WYANT: Editor of Agri-Pulse, a weekly e-newsletter covering farm and rural policy. To contact her, go to: http://www.agri-pulse.com/

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