The Senate gave final approval today to a new five-year Farm Bill, a massive spending measure of nearly $1 trillion that brings sweeping change to agriculture, dairy, conservation and food programs.
The bill passed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 68 to 32, bringing a smooth end to two years of intense fighting over farm and food programs that touch nearly every American. The debate deeply divided a long-standing coalition in Congress, the food and farm sectors, and underscored a reshaping political landscape where rural America holds far less sway in Washington.
President Obama is poised to sign the bill into law as soon as it reaches his desk. The House approved the measure last week on a vote of 251 to 166.
"This is not your father's Farm Bill," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee. "It's a new direction for American agriculture policy."
This bill eliminates billions of dollars in direct subsidy payments to farmers, which is a significant change in U.S. agriculture policy. The costs have climbed to about $5 billion a year and were paid to farmers whether or not they grew the crops. The subsidies were effectively replaced by a crop insurance program to give farmers a lifeline in the wake of floods and droughts.
"This puts in place a safety net," said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. "It truly is more of an insurance situation."
The legislation calls for a significant reduction in the food stamp program, which will be cut by about $8 billion over the next decade. Some lawmakers who said the cuts in food stamps were too severe opposed the measure.
Even though the reduction in the food stamp program was far less than the $40 billion in cuts initially proposed by the House, the Congressional Budget Office estimates benefits will be reduced for about 850,000 households across the county.
The legislation creates a new program that will allow the poor to double their food stamp benefits at farmers markets, which nutrition advocates say will help families eat healthier. The bill also adds $205 million to funding for food banks.
"For two long years, our nation's farm families and rural communities have waited for a Farm Bill," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R.-Mo. "While this may not be the best possible bill, it's the best bill possible right now. Programs in this bill touch the lives of every American, in every community, in every state."
Supporters of the bill say it also cuts spending in farm subsidies and nutrition programs by more than $16 billion over the next 10 years.
The legislation, which has stalled repeatedly in partisan fights over subsidies and spending, is a sprawling bill that stretches to nearly 1,000 pages. Several conservative groups and Tea Party followers said the bill spent too much money, but in the end only 23 Senate Republicans voted against it.
The farm bill is already emerging as a political issue in at least one Senate battleground: Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat seeking re-election to a third term, supported the bill, while his Republican rival, Rep. Tom Cotton, opposed the measure because he said it spent too much money. He was the only member of the Arkansas delegation to oppose the bill.
Republicans view Arkansas as one of their best opportunities to pick up a Democratic seat. When asked how the farm bill would resonate in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country, Boozman demurred and said Cotton, his fellow Republican, "has been pretty upfront about his concerns." But Boozman said that he believed the bill needed to be passed and was essential to the rural economy.
"I think it's important for Arkansas," Boozman said. "I think it's important for the nation to maintain the cheapest, most secure food supply in the world."