Updated 5:44 p.m. | On a day in which blossoming scandals dominated the headlines, some senators worked in relative anonymity on a bill that probably means more to many Americans than anything else going on today.
On a slow news day, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee's meeting in an ornate hearing room in the Russell Building might have gotten more attention, as the panel sent to the floor a bill to set farm policy for the next five years.
The Agriculture Committee's workspace features grand chandeliers dangling from the ceilings and portraits of former leaders hanging high up on the walls, including current ranking member Thad Cochran of Mississippi.
Cochran returned to the top Republican post on the Agriculture panel after being term-limited out at the Appropriations Committee. That turned out to be good timing for Southern growers because Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., compromised with Cochran to win his support in a way she had not needed to in the last Congress when Kansas Republican Pat Roberts served as ranking member.
Stabenow told reporters after the markup that she had to hurry off to the Senate Democrats' weekly caucus meeting to give a presentation on the bill to her colleagues who don't sit on the panel. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said the farm bill is on the chamber's agenda for this month.
“Because the Agriculture Committee worked across party lines to streamline programs, we were able to save tax dollars while investing in initiatives that help boost exports, help family farmers sell locally and spur innovations in new bio-manufacturing and bio-energy industries," Stabenow said in a statement.
The committee's workspace was tiny compared to the cavernous hearing room on the ground floor of the Dirksen Building where the Judiciary Committee resumed work on a rewrite of federal immigration laws. At the Judiciary meeting, Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., mused before his hearing started about how the Dirsken space is among the worst on Capitol Hill.
In a statement for the farm bill markup, Leahy warned against yet another delay in a full five-year policy, which is where farmers found themselves at the end of the last Congress even though a bill had passed the Senate.
"The short term extension of the Farm Bill is no rational way to legislate, and the last-minute extension left dozens of critical agriculture programs stranded without funding," Leahy said. "I hope once the House Agriculture Committee also considers their bill this week the full House will take it up and vote so that we may move ahead this year and give our farmers the certainty they need going forward."
But not everyone was on board, as indicated by the 15-5 vote.
The farm bill includes SNAP — formerly known as food stamps — and as expected, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., voted against advancing the bill after her plan to increase the food stamp payments in the bill failed to gain support.
“Losing ninety dollars a month in food assistance may not sound like a lot to some people. But if you're a parent who's trying to protect your children and feed them good, wholesome, nutritious food, or a senior on a fixed income, it means everything in the world," Gillibrand said in a statement.
Supporters of the food stamp changes in the underlying farm bill note the modifications prevent individuals from claiming heating bills that they don't actually have for the purpose of getting additional federal benefits through SNAP. The Senate had a similar debate during farm bill consideration in the last Congress, with Gillibrand's position being rejected.