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Senate ag panel passes farm bill

by JERRY HAGSTROM For the Capital Press 4/27/12

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill on April 26 that cuts more than $23 billion in spending, ends the direct payments and countercyclical programs and establishes a new commodity program.

The vote was 16-5 of all committee members, including those voting by proxy.

The bill still has to be passed by the Senate and reconciled with the House version before going to President Obama for his signature.

"This is just the first inning of a long and difficult farm bill process," Robert Guenther, senior vice president for policy at for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, said.

Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., John Boozman, R-Ark., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., criticized the commodity title of the bill during the markup session and voted against it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also voted against it by proxy.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also voted against it because she objected to cuts to the food stamp program and to the new dairy program in the bill.

But three-quarters of the members were in favor, and committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who were partners in writing the bill, said they believe the vote was a strong one that should lead Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring it to the floor.

Stabenow said at a news conference after the vote that Reid was "very interested in sitting down and going through the bill," and that she believes it will be a "few weeks" before Reid brings it up.

McConnell joined his fellow southerners in opposing the bill, but Roberts told reporters he did not believe that McConnell opposed it from the position of Republican leader. Roberts also emphasized that Thursday's vote showed Republicans and Democrats can still work together.

At the news conference, Stabenow and Roberts seemed to be keeping the criticism of farm programs in mind and had their eyes on the big picture.

The bill is called "The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012" and at the news conference they emphasized that it is a reform bill and that farmers need a bill this year to provide them certainty.

Stabenow said they were committed to sending it to Obama before the current law expires on Sept. 30.

One advantage Stabenow and Roberts may have in pushing the bill forward is the extraordinary bipartisan outpouring of affection, even by Senate standards, for Stabenow, the first woman to chair the agriculture committee when a farm bill is being written.

"This committee is unique. Our hearing room doesn't have a raised dais; instead we sit together around a table, not unlike the tables that America's farmers sit around after a long day's work," Stabenow said.

Stabenow also said at several points that the revised bill, which contained some changes from the original to make it more acceptable to the southerners, was only "step one" in the process.

Even Boozman, who said the commodity title "would have a devastating impact on southern agriculture" and voted against the bill, praised Stabenow "for taking our calls," for "putting up with us."

The real challenge in bringing the bill to the floor will be changing the commodity title in order to get the support of southern senators, who have traditionally been strong supporters of farm bills.

Chambliss, who was ranking member during the 2008 farm bill debate, told Capital Press after the vote that he and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., had managed to overcome regional differences in writing the commodity title then, but that "this time around it didn't happen."

One of the problems is that rice and peanuts are not grown and marketed the same way as other commodities so crop insurance and the new "shallow loss" program that corn, soybean and other growers will use cannot be so easily adapted to rice and peanuts.

Chambliss said the Congressional Budget Office had found rice growers would give up 70 percent of their subsidy money under the bill, while corn growers would lose 22 percent.

At the news conference, Stabenow and Roberts signaled that they want to find a way to appease the southerners, but only within the budget.

"We are committed to maintaining the savings in the bill," Stabenow said, adding that it was well known that moving away from the direct payments program would disproportionately affect the South.

Stabenow said that crop insurance is "not fully developed" for a number of crops, including the specialty crops grown in Michigan as well as for rice and peanuts.

Roberts added that "within the budget we will address every concern we have," but he also noted that Kansas farmers who used to grow wheat now grow cotton, and hinted that southerners would have to get used to shifting crop patterns.

The southern senators also objected to much stronger payment limitations that were inserted into the bill by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Under this new limitation, individuals with an income of more than $750,000 or married couples with an income of more than $1.5 million will not be eligible for subsidies. Commodity subsidies will be limited to $50,000 per person, and there will be stricter rules about who will be considered actively engaged in farming.

The bill did not, however, place restrictions on crop insurance premium subsidies.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., was expected to offer a bill to strip the dairy stabilization program from the dairy title, but he did not offer it. A dairy lobbyist said he is expected to offer it on the Senate floor.

Conrad and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., praised Stabenow and Roberts for including a provision allowing farmers to choose between a county trigger and individual farm revenue trigger for commodity subsidies. Stabenow noted that Baucus had made sure the bill includes a livestock disaster aid title with a 10-year baseline.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., issued statements after the votes that they were encouraged by the Senate committee's action.

Lucas commended Stabenow and Roberts for advancing the bill, and said he would work with Peterson "to write the House bill in the coming weeks." But Lucas added, "I am disappointed by the Senate bill's commodity title because it does not work for all of agriculture.

"It fails to provide producers a viable safety net and instead locks in profit for a couple of commodities," Lucas said. "I have made it clear that my chief priority is making certain that the commodity title is equitable and provides a safety net for all covered commodities and all regions of the country."

A shallow loss program "is not a safety net," he said. "It does not provide protection against price declines over multiple years and it does not work for all commodities."

Peterson said that the House Agriculture Committee should move quickly to mark up the bill.

Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, took a different tone that reflected the obstacles a farm bill may face in the House.

Conaway said the Senate committee "broke faith with tradition by passing a farm bill that is so lopsided and discriminatory against certain producers, regions, and crops that it will take extraordinary effort to restore the kind of balance necessary to pass a farm bill."



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