A bipartisan farm bill that would protect crop insurance and commodity programs as well as nutrition assistance from cuts passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin, 86-11, clearing the way for negotiations to begin next month with the House. 

The Senate bill largely preserves the structure of the 2014 farm bill while providing new funding for a series of energy, research and local and organic agriculture programs that are set to expire Sept. 30. 

It also avoided including reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that are a key feature of the partisan GOP version that passed the House last week, 213-211.

“We are one step closer to providing farmers and ranchers a Farm Bill with the certainty and predictability they deserve,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who worked closely with ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, both in developing the bill in the committee and then in dealing with amendments. 

Stabenow said the Senate outcome should send a message to the House. “I hope the House will look very closely at the broad support and coalition that we have” behind the bill, she said. 

Roberts and Stabenow easily defeated an amendment to tighten SNAP work requirements and also avoided a vote entirely on cutting crop insurance. 

In a major victory for the crop insurance industry, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., agreed not to bring up an amendment to impose a means test on premium subsidies. The amendment, cosponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, would have reduced premium subsidies by 15 percentage points for policyholders with adjusted gross incomes exceeding $700,000, the same income limit that is in the bill for commodity programs.

Roberts told Agri-Pulse he worked with Durbin to include in the bill an unrelated amendment he wanted to reauthorize rural emergency medical services training and an equipment assistance program. The industry found out that there would be no vote on the means test amendment shortly after Durbin huddled with Roberts, Stabenow and Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, a source said. 

There was no debate on the sugar program either. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said  she didn’t have the support this year to get a vote on her amendment to roll back the program. A similar amendment was defeated by a wide margin in the House in May. 

Before passing the bill, the Senate adopted by voice vote an amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would provide flexibility for landowners to cut hay and graze livestock on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. A package of amendments that also was added to the bill before the final vote included another Thune measure that would allow farmers to change their choice of the Agriculture Risk Coverage and the Price Loss Coverage program in the 2021 crop year.

A key breakthrough for the Senate bill came earlier Thursday when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., reached agreement with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., to modify a Cuba trade amendment she was able to get in the bill in committee. Rubio had blocked consideration of amendments on Wednesday as leverage to address the Cuba issue. 

The modified provision would prevent USDA trade promotion funds from being used by U.S. groups to stay in facilities controlled by the Cuban military.

The Senate defeated, 68-30, an amendment proposed by GOP Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Ted Cruz of Texas that would have tightened work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and required recipients to provide a photo ID when using benefits. 

The lopsided vote underscored the resistance in the Senate to the SNAP reforms that are a key feature of the farm bill the House passed last week. However, the amendment actually went further than the House bill would. The amendment combined separate proposals by Cruz on work requirements and by Kennedy with the ID rule, which retailers strongly opposed. Stabenow called the combined proposals “an amendment in search of a problem.” 

Also defeated, 38-57, was an amendment by Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., to restrict the authority and activities of farmer-funded research and promotion programs. The amendment needed 60 votes to be adopted. 

Farm groups welcomed the Senate bill's passage, and many conservation and environmental groups praised the measure as well. 

"America’s farmers and ranchers continue to face a challenging agricultural economy, a shaky outlook for our export markets and a dire ag labor shortage. It was time for some good news and the Senate delivered it in bipartisan fashion," said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The 86-11 vote was unusually lopsided even for farm bills, which are typically bipartisan. The last time the Senate passed its version of a farm bill by that large a margin was in 1973, when the measure passed, 78-9. The legislation that ultimately became the 2014 farm bill initially passed the Senate in 2012, 64-35, and passed again in 2013, 66-27. 

The 11 senators who voted against the bill were all Republicans: Lee, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Jim Lankford of Oklahoma, Ron Paul of Kentucky and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. 

Kennedy and Cruz, who is up for re-election this year, both voted for the bill despite the loss on their SNAP amendment.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, told Agri-Pulse earlier Thursday that he was eager to begin negotiations with his Senate counterparts and that committee staff members could begin work as soon as next week identifying differences between the bills that need to be resolved. Formal negotiations on a final version of the bill would not begin until after next week’s July 4 recess. 

“Time is of the essence,” Conaway said.  “We’d like to get it done as quickly as possible. I don’t see any reason why we can’t get it done before this current one (the 2014 farm bill) expires” Sept. 30.

There are a number of conflicts between the House and Senate bills beyond the SNAP issues, although both versions of the bills keep crop insurance and major commodity programs intact, and both overhaul dairy producers’ Margin Protection Program to increase the likelihood of payments to small- and medium-scale producers. 

The bills have sharply different provisions on commodity program payment rules, especially after Grassley got language added to the bill on the Senate floor this week to tighten the requirements for qualifying for payments as a farm manager. The bill also would reduce the income eligibility limit for payments to $700,000 from the existing cap of $900,000. 

Senate Agriculture Committee member David Perdue, R-Ga., went to the Senate floor Thursday morning to complain about the Grassley provisions, which he said would threaten the viability of some farms. “If an individual never drives a tractor, never milks a cow, he or she can still provide an important contribution to the vitality of the farm operation,” Perdue said. 

The House bill, by contrast, would liberalize rules for members of partnerships and S corporations and would expand the number of extended family members who could qualify for payments. 

Other major differences between the bills are in the conservation title. The House bill would increase the acreage cap on the Conservation Reserve Program from 24 million acres to 29 million acres and merge the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The Senate would increase CRP to 25 million acres and preserve CSP as a standalone program. 

The House bill includes provisions not in the Senate bill to speed pesticide approvals and registration reviews by allowing EPA to avoid going through the Endangered Species Act's lengthy consultation process, which requires the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to assess a chemical's impact on threatened or endangered species. 

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