WASHINGTON — The US Senate approved on Thursday a five-year, $500 billion farm bill that’s being described as the most significant agriculture reform in a generation, but it faces an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives.
The bill, which sets funding for agriculture and nutrition programs over the next five years, is estimated to save taxpayers $23 billion compared to current spending, through elimination of some subsidies, ending payments made to farmers regardless of whether they plant a crop, and changes to the food stamp program.
In a rare display of bipartisan unity in an election year, the bill sailed through the Senate 64-35 after a two-day marathon of deliberations over hundreds of proposed amendments.
“This is a very fine day in the recent history of the Senate,” the chamber’s Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democratic chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, touted the bill as “the most significant reform to farm programs in decades.”
“It cuts spending, ends subsidies, improves accountability and strengthens healthy food systems.”
The subsidies — for decades a matter of intense debate both domestically and among international groups which say the payments hinder fair trade — would be replaced by a crop insurance program which would serve as the primary safety net for American farmers.
Co-sponsor and ranking committee Republican Senator Pat Roberts hailed the spirit of compromise that led to such pricey legislation, but he stressed after the vote that “our work is not done.”
“The House must act, and we must have something in place before current programs expire September 30.”
That leaves little time in the midst of a heated presidential campaign season to get the House to vote on its version of the bill and then work out the differences.
“Obviously September 30 is looming. There are really disastrous results after that if we don’t get this done,” Stabenow said, referring to automatic cuts to agriculture programs that kick in on October 1.
The spirit of bipartisanship may not be repeated in the Republican-led House, where lawmakers this year approved a budget proposal that slashes $36 billion in food stamp benefits over the coming decade, well beyond the $4.5 billion in savings to the program in the Senate bill.
“Certainly the level that passed by the House in their budget resolution is absolutely unacceptable to me and the majority of those in the Senate,” Stabenow said.
But she said she had confidence in the leaders of the House Agriculture Committee, and “I would not anticipate that level being discussed.”
Food stamp spending has soared in the last five years, during which the program’s beneficiaries have more than doubled, to 46 million.