Senate passes farm bill, setting up food stamp battle with the House
The Senate on Thursday easily passed its farm bill by a vote of 86-11, clearing the way for a conference committee to reconcile differences with the House’s version of the sweeping agriculture and nutrition legislation.
The Senate’s bipartisan support of the $867 billion bill, coming a week after the House passed its partisan measure by a margin of just two votes, gives Congress some leeway in its effort to deliver legislation to President Donald Trump to sign before the current farm bill expires on Sept. 30. Reauthorizing the farm bill on time is a priority in farm country, where a prolonged slump in commodity prices has more than halved net farm income in recent years and trade retaliation has already cut into some farmers’ bottom line.
Key differences between the House and Senate bills, primarily in regard to the food stamp program, farm subsidy caps and conservation initiatives, set up potentially contentious negotiations between the lawmakers who will be tasked with melding the two versions into one.
“We know conference committee is going to be a wild and woolly debate as we go forward on a number of things,” Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said on the floor earlier on Thursday.
Stabenow and Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) had spent months crafting a bill that would avoid the kind of regional fights that have bedeviled past efforts to pass the farm bill, or the partisan strife that nearly derailed the House version. The result is legislation, S. 3042 (115), that mostly maintains the status quo — with the exception of a controversial amendment from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that is aimed at cutting off commodity support payments to individuals who aren’t actually working on a farm day to day.
After the vote, both Stabenow and Roberts suggested the large margin of victory gives Senate leaders leverage in upcoming conference negotiations.
“We’re in a pretty strong position,” Stabenow told reporters.
Roberts agreed — and threw in a little joke to underscore his joyful mood. “I think the strong vote is very helpful to us,” he said, “and it is not true that I was using Tasers on who was going to vote ‘no.'”
The bill got the bipartisan boost Roberts and Stabenow were seeking after an impasse over provisions related to agricultural trade with Cuba was resolved. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Wednesday afternoon had blocked consideration of further amendments until senators agreed to modify a provision from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) that would have allowed USDA funding for foreign market development programs to be spent in Cuba — or until senators backed his proposal to ban U.S. taxpayer dollars from going toward businesses owned by the Cuban military.
Rubio wanted to codify an executive order that prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used on programs that benefit businesses owned by the Cuban military. In the end, Heitkamp changed her amendment Thursday to give the Agriculture Department discretion to implement funding in line with the Trump administration’s stance on Cuba.
A renewed effort by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to place a congressional check on Trump’s authority to impose tariffs on national security grounds — as he has done with steel and aluminum imports from China, Canada, Mexico and other countries — looked at one point like it could impede the farm bill. But an amendment was blocked from even coming up for a vote.
The farm bill would authorize for five years a sweeping array of programs ranging from nutrition assistance and farm subsidies to rural development and agricultural research. In the coming weeks, GOP leaders from both chambers will appoint a group of lawmakers to a conference committee — typically senior members of the Agriculture committees.
After last week’s narrow passage of the House bill, H.R. 2 (115), House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said that committee staff from both sides of the aisle planned to begin meeting to prepare for conference as soon as the Senate passed its own bill.
The close call in the House, which had initially voted down the farm bill in May, reflected an all-Republican vote that ended in leadership’s favor after a vote on a conservative immigration measure demanded by the House Freedom Caucus led eight members of the bloc to change their earlier votes and back the farm bill.
Not a single Democrat backed the House bill in either vote. They vehemently oppose provisions in the bill that would mandate stricter work requirements for between 5 million and 7 million participants in the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP makes up more than three-quarters of all farm bill spending, and helps more than 40 million people in cities and rural communities pay for groceries each week.
Roberts and Stabenow charted a much different course on SNAP in the Senate bill, mindful of the fact that a simple majority can’t get a bill across the Senate floor, as well as SNAP’s importance to preserving the rural and urban coalition that historically has been essential to passing the big-ticket legislation.
The Senate farm bill avoids the hot-button subject of work restrictions, with Roberts and Stabenow saying repeatedly in recent months that the House’s SNAP proposals would never clear the 60-vote threshold in the upper chamber. Roberts and Stabenow chose instead to make a series of administrative changes to the $70-billion-a-year SNAP program that are designed to tinker with how it works and combat fraud.
The duo worked together Thursday to defeat an amendment, offered by Republican Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, that attempted to strengthen work requirements for food stamp recipients.
Roberts said after the final vote that it was too soon to “get down that road” of predicting how conference negotiations will play out over the differing Senate and House proposals for SNAP, but suggested the Senate hasn’t gotten enough credit for what it would achieve in making changes to root out fraud in the program.
“If you look at what we did, without the backdrop of what the House did, it is terribly significant and is right on the money of getting integrity into the program,” he said. “I needed to really talk about that more to my Republican colleagues and, who knows, we could have hit 90 [votes].”
The House’s plan to tighten eligibility requirements for SNAP could lead some 400,000 households that now receive benefits to fail to qualify for assistance, which may also risk some children losing eligibility for free and reduced-price school meals, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.
The House bill’s food stamp proposals, a priority for House Speaker Paul Ryan in his long quest for welfare reform, also include a plan to spend billions of dollars to expand capacity in state-run SNAP education and work-training programs. Democrats have questioned the soundness of that investment, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to expand state education and training programs until the effectiveness of related pilot projects funded by the 2014 farm bill are fully evaluated, which won’t be for another few years.
House Agriculture Committee Democrats demanded that talks be broken off with Conaway over the bill’s SNAP proposals, contending he wouldn’t budge on many of the provisions they opposed, while Conaway said he hoped they would return to the negotiating table. A markup of the bill ended up being an exercise in partisan sniping, and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) later said he will argue for the Senate’s SNAP proposals during conference.
The House side got some support heading into conference when Trump backed the lower chamber’s proposal to strengthen SNAP work requirements in a tweet after House Republicans passed Conaway’s bill. Even before Trump had weighed in, Conaway had predicted that stricter work requirements will make it into any conference report.
After Thursday’s outcome in the Senate, however, Conaway took a more measured tone, issuing a statement that applauded Roberts for his “tireless efforts” and said he looked forward “to working together to send a strong, new farm bill to the president’s desk.”
One way or another, conference committee negotiators will have to find a solution on SNAP that the White House will support, though Trump has repeatedly backed an on-time farm bill.
The White House on Tuesday stopped short of putting its full support behind the Senate farm bill, but it didn’t threaten a veto, either. In a Statement of Administration Policy on the bill, the White House said Roberts and Stabenow missed opportunities to reform SNAP, including by expanding work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents, as the House bill would do. The White House also said the bill “fails to close eligibility loopholes and target benefits to the neediest households.”
However, the White House did endorse the Senate’s proposal to reduce from $900,000 to $700,000 the income limit to be eligible for commodity supports, but encouraged lawmakers to also apply a means test to federal crop insurance and to cap premium subsidies under the program — two policies included in the administration’s fiscal 2019 budget plan. Commodity supports and crop insurance typically cost nearly $13 billion a year.
The Senate began considering amendments on Wednesday. The adoption of the Grassley provision — himself a recipient of farm subsidies — puts the question of whether to place stricter limits on subsidy payments at the top of the list of thorny differences with the House version, along with SNAP.
Grassley’s amendment would limit farms to having only one member of the operation who could claim they are “actively engaged” in the business — and therefore eligible for payments — under management criteria set by the Agriculture Department.
Instead of reining in farm subsidies, the House bill would make it easier for some operations to collect more money from commodity support programs. Additional family members would be eligible for up to $125,000 a year in payments, the limit contained in current law, and Conaway has said the provisions are designed to recognize that many operations are cross-generational.
Anti-hunger, taxpayer watchdog and sustainable agriculture groups have criticized the House bill for simultaneously attempting to rein in SNAP benefits for low-income Americans while boosting subsidies to farmers when it is estimated that 70 percent of existing payments flow to the largest 10 percent of agricultural operations.
Members of the conference committee will also have a host of differences to resolve on conservation programs. The House bill would phase out the Conservation Stewardship Program, which awards farmers yearslong grants to address soil health, water quality and other environmental issues on their land, and fold much of it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, an à la carte initiative that gives farmers one-time payments for conservation projects. Overall, the House bill would cut the conservation title by nearly $800 million over a decade.
The Senate version would keep funding for conservation programs flat, but shift money away from the Conservation Stewardship Program and into a regional initiative that partners federal, state and local officials with farmers for technical and financial assistance.
The farm bill vote in the Senate came days before Canada, Mexico and China are expected to hit U.S. farm goods with retaliatory tariffs in response to Trump’s trade moves that target imports from those nations — heightening the pressure on Congress to quickly combine the Senate and House versions.
Alexander Nieves contributed to this report.