Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee have reached agreement on a bipartisan farm bill that would keep the 2014 farm law largely intact while avoiding a partisan fight over food stamps.
The text of the draft bill is expected to be released on Friday.
"We’ve got tough budget restrictions, but I think we have something that’s very fair and very workable," said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., after briefing GOP committee members on the bill Thursday morning.
The committee's ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., later told Agri-Pulse, "It's a good balance. It's bipartisan."
Roberts and Stabenow formally announced Thursday morning that the panel will act on their bill next Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised to bring the bill to the floor before the end of the month.
The draft bill would leave the Price Loss Coverage program alone and make relatively minor improvements to the Agriculture Risk Coverage program. However, the bill would tighten the means test for commodity programs, reducing the adjusted gross income to qualify for subsidies from $900,000 to $700,000 a year, sources said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was unable to include additional payment limit provisions into the bill, but he said he would offer them as an amendment in committee. His proposal would allow one manager or non-farming family member per farm to qualify for commodity program payments.
The Conservation Reserve Program would be allowed to expand to 25 million acres, up from the 24 million-acre limit set by the 2014 farm bill. The House farm bill would raise the cap to 29 million acres. The Senate bill also would preserve the Conservation Stewardship Program, which the House bill would eliminate.
The Senate bill won’t include the expanded work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that House Republicans put in their bill, which was defeated May 18 in the face of unified Democratic opposition.
After the briefing for GOP committee members, Roberts said, “We had a good discussion, and we know that the number-one issue is to pass a bill and that we will have strong bipartisan support."
He also said, “I think the biggest issue that I tried to emphasize, and I think they all agree, is that we need a bill and that the biggest issue is farmers need certainty and predictability."
While the bill would not expand SNAP work requirements, a Roberts aide said the legislation would "provide more accountability to the employment and training programs for the federal government, states and local stakeholders to address skills barriers and local workforce needs. We’re directing more pilot programs to test methods to work with harder to employ populations like older workers, recently incarcerated, disabled, homeless, and those recovering from substance abuse."
Stabenow said the bill also wouldn't change the broad-based categorical eligibility provisions in current law that allow people to qualify for SNAP in some states with incomes as much as twice the federal poverty level. The House bill would eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility, effectively making the federal income limit, 130 percent of the poverty limit, the standard nationwide.
“I think we can say to people that we have taken a good look at the SNAP program.," Roberts said. "While on one hand, I think we’ve made efficiencies and some reforms, on the other hand, we want to protect the integrity of the program."
Roberts resisted pleas by Midwest senators to overhaul ARC and PLC to make ARC more attractive to corn growers. Roberts said those changes, which included a mandated update to base acreage, would have harmed growers in other states, including his home state and the South.
Committee member John Boozman, R-Ark., who argued against cutting PLC to improve ARC, said he was pleased with the bill. “Overall, I was happy with how this has all come (out),” he said.
The draft includes one improvement to ARC contained in a bill proposed by Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a source said. The committee's bill would modify ARC guarantee calculations to increase the substitute yield from 70 percent to 75 percent of the county T-yield when yields are lower than 75 percent. The Thune-Brown bill would have raised the substitute yield to 80 percent.
The Thune-Brown bill would have reduced some PLC reference prices to offset the cost of increasing ARC payments.
(Updated at 1:45 p.m. with additional detail, comments.)
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