In a rare display of bipartisanship, goodwill and speed, the Senate voted Thursday to approve a 900-page, $500 billion farm bill that extends the nation's agriculture programs until 2017 while slicing nearly $24 billion from the federal deficit.
By a vote of 64-35, senators sent the bill to the House, which has been waiting for the Senate bill before starting its own process.
Congress renews the bill once every five years, although twice in recent years it has failed to do so on time, which means several programs either expire or revert to the state they were in under the 1949 farm bill.
The current farm bill will expire on September 30th without House approval and a presidential signature.
Congress will have to act quickly to prevent that -- both houses are adjourned during all of August, and any significant differences in the bill made by the House will require complex conference talks with the Senate to provide a final compromise version.
"This bill is about standing up for our nation's farmers, our small businesses, our manufacturers, our exporters and others whose livelihoods depend on us getting the policy right," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
She added, "This represents significant reform. It cuts subsidies, it cuts the deficit, it creates jobs."
The bill indeed reverses years of agricultural policy - most notably the direct payment system, in which farmers were paid whether they had crop losses or not, or even if they weren't growing crops. Meanwhile, there are more protections for farmers with both "shallow" and "deep" crop losses.
A successful Senate vote was all but assured after the bill passed a key procedural hurdle earlier this month with 90 votes - an almost unheard-of total in recent years.
Senators had been voting for two days straight to plow through 73 amendments before the final vote.
Along the way, senators voted down an amendment that would have banned the Environmental Protection Agency from using unmanned drones to monitor crops while approving an amendment that requires a report on the impact of next year's automatic spending cuts.
The Senate's top Democratic and Republican leaders offered rare compliments to each other and the Senate Agriculture Committee on how the bill was crafted in a bipartisan fashion.
"I've managed quite a few bills in my day, and this is a difficult, difficult bill to have in the position we have it in now," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "I hope our friends in the House see what we have done."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., called the process that led to Thursday's vote "one of the finest moments of the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill."
"I think we're all feeling good about the way this has been handled," McConnell said. "I think we're moving back in the direction of the way we traditionally understood we operate the Senate. This is a very fine day in the recent history of the Senate."
Highlights of the bill:
* Senators agreed to end the 16-year-old system of direct payments to farmers - currently about $5 billion annually;
* Direct payments would be replaced with a "shallow loss" system that grants farmers more choices about how payments are calculated;
* Conservation programs would be trimmed and consolidated, saving about $6 billion;
* Eligibility requirements for nutrition programs such as food stamps would be raised, saving $4 billion;
* Crop insurance provisions would be strengthened but redundant programs would be streamlined, saving $15 billion;
* Elimination or streamlining of $1 billion in rural development programs, $770 million in rural development programs, and $20 million in forestry programs.
by RTT Staff Writer
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