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Floor Fight Will Test Farm Bill

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow hopes the farm bill will survive the rash of amendments expected from Senators on the floor.

Key architects of a long-term farm bill are hoping to keep their “delicate” agreement intact, even as a likely floor assault from Members of both parties and various regions threatens to thwart a final deal.

Senators in both parties believe there will be enough support to break a filibuster and open debate on the 10-year, $969 billion package as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) allows for an open amendment process. But opening the floor to myriad amendments — many of which may be more political than policy-related — could prove troublesome when the measure comes to the floor, possibly this week.

When asked Monday whether there were 60 votes to open debate on the bill, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said, “Yes. That’s not in question.”

She added, “These days, in the Senate, there are larger issues involved with the leaders in terms of negotiating other bills and such, but we have the 60 votes to proceed.”

Stabenow said she expects “a lot of different kinds of amendments” and noted that she and her staff had identified most potential Democratic amendments but were not yet clear on the universe of GOP amendments. She warned that she will be looking for Republicans to offer relevant proposals so the bill won’t be derailed by extraneous issues: “We’re going to be open and fair, but in the end analysis, if someone’s just trying to obstruct, then we’ll handle that.”

Stabenow said the process of debating the bill could take two to three weeks, but some Democratic leadership aides said the Senate might take a week and a half on the legislation, with or without approving it.

Perhaps the most significant boon to the bill’s chances on the floor comes from the relationship developed between Stabenow and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) as they moved the bill through the committee.

In the process of negotiating the final committee product, the two veteran lawmakers spent long nights in Stabenow’s office suite working the phones with Members of their own parties to build enough support for the farm bill, which ultimately passed out of the panel on a 13-5 vote in April.

One selling point has been a Congressional Budget Office projection that the measure will shave $23.6 billion from the deficit over the next decade.

But the roadblocks to final passage aren’t exclusively partisan or procedural — they are also regional, as Senators from the South look to protect different agricultural or conservation interests than their Midwestern counterparts, for example.

Southern rice and peanut growers have been especially vocal about their concerns regarding massive reforms to the Agriculture Risk Coverage program, which compliments crop insurance against both price and yield losses, and the proposed elimination of direct cash payments to farmers.

According to documents released by the committee, the elimination of direct payments would amount to $15 billion in deficit reduction during the next 10 years.

“The bottom line, in the reforms, the era of direct payments is over,” Stabenow told reporters. “We’re not going to be paying farmers for crops they don’t grow, and we’re not going to be paying farmers when they’re already doing well.”

One place of difficulty for Democrats could be the $4.5 billion in cuts slated for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), the only Democrat to vote against the bill in committee, has proposed an amendment that would replace those cuts with further cuts to crop insurance.

“This Farm Bill is much more than a set of esoteric numbers. It’s very much about the decisions we are making regarding economic growth, regarding our agriculture industries, and the moral obligation we have to our families that are at risk,” Gillibrand said in a statement Monday. “Food stamps are an extraordinary investment because for every dollar that you put into the SNAP program, you get out $1.71.”

Stabenow, however, defended the cuts, saying the Senate took an approach of “accountability.” She said the Senate bill would preserve the core of the program more than previous House efforts but would eliminate fraud and waste at the state level.

In answering a question over whether Gillibrand’s amendment might put Democrats in a tough spot, Stabenow revealed the central conflict coloring the pending debate: “We’ve struck a very delicate balance. With any large piece of legislation that’s been negotiated, it’s very important to keep that balance that’s fair to both sides.”

Though there are plenty of provisions that Republicans should like, from consolidating 23 conservation programs to 13, trimming billions of dollars from the deficit and ending direct government payouts to farmers, Stabenow and Roberts are still facing a tough haul.

And if the bill doesn’t get done now, months out from the Election Day, it’s unclear whether it will wrap before the campaign season does. Beyond tough national politics, pushing toward November could create logistical issues for Stabenow, who is up for re-election. Besides the pressure of campaign events, leading a huge authorization bill on the floor can be very time-consuming.

Recent history shows the task to be daunting. On the previous farm bill, Congress had to override two vetoes from President George W. Bush to make the full measure law.

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