LESS than a week after the Senate Agriculture Committee held a markup of its farm bill, committee chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), along with ranking member Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), set the stage for debate of the bill on the full Senate floor May 20.
In the first few days of on-and-off debate, amendments addressing crop insurance and food stamps were some that received votes by the full Senate. At press time, nearly 200 amendments had been filed, but only a dozen had been voted on.
Last Thursday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said Stabenow was working to establish a finite list of amendments to be voted on when the Senate returns from its Memorial Day recess June 3.
During her opening floor speech, Stabenow said the "top goal of the agriculture reform bill is risk management," and market-based risk management tools will serve as the "hallmark of this farm bill."
She said the bill strengthens crop insurance, which is the number-one risk management tool farmers use, and added that it is important to strengthen and protect crop insurance.
The first amendment filed on the bill was one that would eliminate crop insurance for tobacco. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) introduced the amendment last Monday with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Cal.), but it was voted down 44-52 on Thursday.
After McCain made his case for eliminating tobacco crop insurance, Stabenow took to the floor and said insurance allows farmers to deal with risk, and moving forward, there will be a lot of discussion on crop insurance.
She asked colleagues to resist sweeping changes to the successful public/private insurance system that does allow farmers to have skin in the game. She cautioned to view the situation through a "broad lens" as farmers move away from direct subsidies.
"As we move toward that broad cornerstone, I urge against efforts to weaken that around the edges," Stabenow said of eliminating one crop from participation in crop insurance.
Sens. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) proposed an amendment to reduce insurance premiums from 62% to 47% for the richest 1% of farmers who have adjusted gross income of more than $750,000 (roughly 20,000 farmers total). The change would save an estimated $1 billion.
The amendment passed 59-33, but it goes against the carefully crafted compromise worked out among commodity, conservation and environmental groups that would link conservation compliance to crop insurance participation in return for opposing any limits to crop insurance eligibility.
Crop insurance remains one of the sticking points for the White House, which has called for farmers to pay a greater portion of the premiums.
"Consistent with the President's budget, the Administration looks forward to working with Congress to achieve crop insurance and commodity program savings that are not contained in S. 954 while at the same time strengthening the farm safety net in times of need and supporting the next generation of farmers," the White House said in its official statement of Administration policy.
An amendment from Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) to roll back the $4 billion in cuts proposed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers was voted down 26-70.
On the other end of the SNAP debate, an amendment from Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) that would have cut nutrition spending by $31 billion was voted down 40-58. The bill called for the elimination of categorical eligibility, which was designed to help streamline the administration of SNAP by allowing households to be certified as eligible for SNAP food benefits without evaluating household assets or gross income, Roberts said.
"However, 42 states are exploiting an unintended loophole of the (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program) and expanding the aid beyond those it was designed to help," he added.
The House's farm bill achieves greater nutrition savings by eliminating categorical eligibility.
In a floor speech at the start of the week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) said the $20 billion in nutrition cuts proposed in the House "won't pass muster in the Senate" and just highlights the deep divide on nutrition spending cuts between the two chambers.
An amendment from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) to make SNAP funds block grants by states was also voted down 36-60.
The Senate voted down an effort by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.) and Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) to change the domestic sugar support offered.
An amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) to give states the right to label genetically modified foods was not approved.
An amendment from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) to allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs was the first amendment the Senate approved, passing on an 87-8 vote.