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Senate and House to Negotiate on Farm Bill After Recess

Senators overwhelmingly passed their farm bill Thursday

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow were united in keeping the chamber’s farm bill a bipartisan one. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow were united in keeping the chamber’s farm bill a bipartisan one. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate passed its farm bill Thursday by a vote of 86-11, after rejecting a proposal that would have reduced food stamp benefits for able-bodied adults.

The vote clears the path for a Senate-House conference committee after Congress returns from the weeklong Fourth of July recess. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow remained united in keeping the bill bipartisan by working to prevent contentious provisions from being added to it.

Unlike the House version, the Senate bill steers clear of controversial changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program. It also includes provisions that would legalize industrial hemp production, encourage exports to Cuba, extend the flood insurance program and allow grazing on some conservation lands. However, it does not include the much debated provision by Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker to check the president over tariffs he imposes on allies because of national security concerns.

[Corker Adds Wrinkle to Farm Bill as He Pushes Back on Trump’s Tariffs]

The Senate passed the House bill, or HR 2, Thursday evening after adopting a substitute amendment that contained 18 measures. The Senate also adopted an additional 15 amendments by unanimous consent. The substitute amendment, which included the Senate’s version of the bill, was approved by voice vote. The upcoming conference will be on the House version and the Senate version of HR 2.

The only other roll call vote Thursday was on an amendment by Utah Republican Mike Lee and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker to limit the use of money collected from farmers by commodity checkoff programs, which support advertising of crops or research. The provision would have barred checkoff groups from agricultural lobbying to avoid abuses that Lee said had occurred in the past. The measure was defeated, 38-57.

Roberts said repeatedly that the farm bill’s financial safety net would provide “certainty and stability” for farmers in a fifth year of generally low crop prices, exacerbated for some by retaliatory tariffs imposed by trading partners responding to U.S. global duties on imported steel and aluminum. Farmers also face higher prices for equipment as domestic manufacturers have raised prices in response to rising costs of both U.S. and foreign steel and aluminum products and components.

The farm bill would authorize and set policies for farm, conservation, crop insurance, nutrition, rural development and other programs for fiscal years 2019-23. The current farm law  expires Sept. 30.

Watch: Cattle Call, Grifters and Counting to a Billion — Congressional Hits and Misses

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Bill provisions

The Senate bill would remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and legalize growing hemp as an agricultural crop, a provision actively backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The bill also included a provision from South Dakota GOP Sen. John Thune that would allow some grazing on land contracted under the Conservation Reserve Program.

It also included a provision to renew the expiring National Flood Insurance Program to Jan. 31, 2019, and modification to language by North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp that would call on the Agriculture Department to include Cuba in its effort to open up new export markets for agriculture products. The development of new markets is paid for with federal funds.

[Fight Over Food Stamps Among Big Hurdles Facing Farm Bill]

Sen. Marco Rubio challenged the Cuba language and blocked consideration of farm bill amendments Wednesday. The Florida Republican forced a modification to the provision to prevent USDA from using federal money to expand agricultural exports in deals that include businesses or entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military.

Rubio is concerned that farm groups traveling to Havana to open up new markets would stay at hotels or eat at restaurants controlled or owned by the Cuban military. The modification says that such trade-related trips are subject to President Donald Trump’s June 2017 national security memo barring any financial transactions with businesses owned by the Cuban military. Travelers can spend their money at privately owned businesses and facilities.

SNAP issue 

Going into conference, the most obvious area of difference between the Senate and House farm bills will be over SNAP, which accounts for almost 80 percent of all farm bill spending.

Prior to passing its bill, the Senate voted 68-30 to table an amendment by GOP Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lee that would have reduced food aid for single, able-bodied adults without minor children. The amendment would have limited SNAP benefits to one month out of every 36 months if a recipient didn’t work at least part-time or participate in training. The current law limits benefits for such recipients to three out of every 36 months. The amendment would have mandated states to meet certain levels of participation in SNAP work programs.

[Opinion: Ignore the Hyperbole, Encouraging Work Is a Worthy Goal]

Kennedy and Cruz said their goal was to move low-income people who are able to work out of the program and into self-sufficiency. Roberts and Stabenow argued against the proposal.

“We already have work requirements in SNAP,″ Stabenow said on the Senate floor. “Now 75 percent of those who get food help are senior citizens, people with disabilities, children and their parents,” the Michigan Democrat said, noting that as the economy improves, SNAP spending is expected to decline by several billion dollars as able-bodied SNAP recipients return to work.

Roberts said some provisions in the defeated amendment would have duplicated current law or would add to states’ administrative burden. The Kansas Republican noted that the Senate bill covers 18 state pilot projects to determine the most effective way to move people, including older and disabled recipients, from SNAP into work.

The Senate legislation also would end a bonus program designed to reward states for reducing error rates in making SNAP benefit payments. The Justice Department found that several states had manipulated data to claim millions in bonus payments.

[Opinion: Work Requirements Don’t Actually Work]

Roberts said that if the SNAP amendment had been approved, he doubted he would have had the bipartisan support to pass the bill.

The House farm bill sparked Democratic objections with its expanded work requirements for adults ages 18 to 59, increased funding for state work and education programs and tighter eligibility requirements. Democrats and anti-poverty groups say it would make it more difficult for people to qualify for food aid. The House passed its bill on June 21 by a vote of 213-211, without any Democratic support.

In conference, Roberts and Stabenow will probably cite the Senate vote to table the Kennedy-Cruz-Lee amendment as evidence that a compromise that resembles the House bill would not pass the Senate.

While most of the attention has focused on SNAP, another issue that may prove to be contentious is Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s provision to limit farm payments to one person or one entity “actively engaged” in the day-to-day management or operations of a farm. The Iowa Republican said the current definition of “actively engaged” allows investors or others without “dirt under their fingernails” to qualify for farm subsidies.

Sen. John Boozman opposed the language and said it ignores the reality of modern farming and financing.

“Because of the high price of becoming a farmer, maintaining a farm, you need investors. You need all kinds of different types of financing mechanisms. It’s a different world now than it was 10 years ago. I think it will continue,” the Arkansas Republican said Thursday before debate began.

“We don’t need to backtrack,” he said.

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