WASHINGTON — A five-year farm and food bill that would revamp the federal safety net for farmers and eliminate direct government payments for idle crop fields took its first step toward passage Thursday in the Senate.
A 90-8 vote to officially begin debate opens the way for what could be several weeks of attempts to amend proposed legislation that spends some $100 billion a year on crop insurance, conservation and nutrition programs.
The measure would save $23 billion over a 10-year period from current spending levels. Some of those savings would come from eliminating the current system where farmers get direct payments from the government regardless of whether they actually plant a crop.
"This is not your father's farm bill," said Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who crafted the legislation with the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.
The old direct farm subsidy program would be replaced by a new plan that places greater stress on subsidized crop insurance and a new program that compensates farmers when revenues from planted fields fall below levels as determined by a five-year average.
Roberts said the bill cuts or streamlines more than 100 programs, including combining four commodity protection plans into one and reducing conservation programs from 23 to 13.
The White House on Thursday issued a statement in support of the legislation, saying it would eliminate direct payments, tighten eligibility requirements and strengthen access to healthy, affordable foods. The Obama administration also said the bill would protect emergency food aid and increase flexibility in the delivery of international food aid.
"It is critical that the Congress pass legislation that provides certainty for rural America and includes needed reforms and savings," the White House note said.
The farm bill, which differs from many bills in not splitting Congress among party lines, could become one of the few major measures to reach the president's desk before the November elections. But it won't be easy.
Senators are likely to use the bill as a vehicle to take up unrelated issues, such as looming automatic cuts in the defense budget set off by the failed negotiations in Congress last year to reduce spending. Southern senators are also expected to seek changes in the new revenue protection program, which they say discriminates against southern crops such as rice and peanuts.
Other legislators are seeking reductions in the crop insurance program under which the government shoulders more than 60 percent of farmers' insurance premiums and protest the bill's cuts of more than $4 billion over 10 years in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.
About 80 percent of the $100 billion in annual spending under the bill would go to nutrition programs. Some 46 million Americans receive food stamps, a number that has risen sharply during the economic downturn.
The House Agriculture Committee is expected to write a farm bill more sympathetic to southern growers, who want to keep aspects of the existing system where farmers are paid when prices dip below certain target levels. House Republicans also say that more savings can be squeezed out of the food stamp program.
The current farm act expires at the end of September