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45 Senators urge open debate on farm bill

Forty-five senators from every region of the country have sent letters to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urging them to schedule floor consideration of the farm bill and allow an open debate on it, but there is also speculation over how the bill would fare on the Senate floor.

Forty four senators signed a letter, dated today, that was jointly organized by Senators Mike Johanns, R-Neb.; Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent her own letter dated Monday, making the number 45 senators in favor of a scheduled Senate debate.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., did not sign the letter, but they have scheduled a news conference on Wednesday to discuss the status of the farm bill.

In a floor statement today celebrating the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Agriculture Department, Stabenow noted that Lincoln created the Agriculture Department and signed the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroad act, and the Morrill Act creating land grant colleges all in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War.

“It has been 150 years since President Lincoln created America’s commitment to agriculture, and we have come a long way since then,” Stabenow said.

“We have been through floods and famines, dust bowls and depressions,” she said. “But we have also seen great advances as we have learned to overcome these challenges with better risk management, conservation practices, and a commitment to fighting hunger. Passing the farm bill will continue this great American success story.

“The 150th Anniversary of USDA’s creation is a great time to celebrate farmers and rural communities,” she added. "It is also a strong reminder that we here in Congress need to do our jobs, too, and pass the farm bill soon. Our country’s future depends on it.”

In the letter sent today, the senators noted that the bill would reduce spending by $23 billion over 10 years compared with the continuation of current programs, and that it passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 26 by a bipartisan vote of 16 to 5. Their letter said, “This sets an example of how senators can come together in a bipartisan way to craft meaningful, yet fiscally responsible, policy. We believe there is strong support in the full Senate to consider the bill in a fair and open manner that allows senators the opportunity to offer amendments.”

Feinstein generally made the same points in her separate letter. But her letter also noted that amendments should be “germane” and that the bill is important to the 81,000 fruit, vegetable and nut farmers in her home state, California.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., one of the five senators who did not vote for the bill in committee, signed the letter urging floor consideration. Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and John Boosman, R-Ark., who voted against it in committee, did not sign the letter.

The fifth vote against the bill in committee was a proxy vote by McConnell, to whom the letter was addressed. Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, signed the group letter, but they were the only southerners who signed.

The senators sent the letter amidst much speculation about how Congress will proceed on the farm bill while southerners — particularly rice and peanut growers -- are dissatisfied with the commodity title.

One lobbyist who favors quick consideration said that “numerous groups worked really, really hard” to gather the signatures, but that it is likely the bill will come up in June after the Memorial Day recess. The lobbyist said that southern groups had urged senators not to sign the letter, and that lobbyists in favor of quick consideration were telling senators and their staff that they had to think about how many acres they have in corn and soybeans as compared with those in rice and peanuts.

An individual who represents rice and peanuts said that there is speculation that consideration of the farm bill will falter on the Senate floor over procedural issues. The bill is not likely to get serious consideration in the House or Senate until after the election when it is likely to become part of a package to avoid cuts to defense spending, the person said.

But another lobbyist said that viewpoint is not an analysis of the situation, but the latest southern strategy to get target prices and higher benefit levels for rice and peanuts into the bill and to avoid tighter payment limitations.

“We are particularly encouraged by the broad and diverse coalition of senators that have lent their support to this letter, and we echo their call to bring the legislation quickly to the floor in the interest of America’s soybean farmers,” American Soybean Association President Steve Wellman said in a news release.

“The nation depends on a vibrant agriculture sector and agriculture depends on a practical and workable farm bill," he said. "The ramifications of this legislation are indeed huge, and it remains our goal to see a farm bill in 2012.”

The letter urging an open debate on the farm bill was signed by 44 senators:
  • John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)
  • Max Baucus (D-Mont.)
  • Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)
  • Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
  • Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
  • Scott Brown (R-Mass.)
  • Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
  • Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)
  • Bob Casey (D-Pa.)
  • Dan Coats (R-Ind.)
  • Kent Conrad (D-N.D)
  • Chris Coons (D-Del.)
  • Mike Crapo (R-Idaho)
  • Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.)
  • Al Franken (D-Minn.)
  • Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
  • Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
  • Kay Hagan (D-N.C.)
  • Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)
  • John Hoeven (R-N.D.)
  • Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas)
  • Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii
  • Mike Johanns (R-Neb.)
  • Tim Johnson (D-S.D.)
  • John Kerry (D-Mass.)
  • Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)
  • Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
  • Herb Kohl (D-Wis.)
  • Pat Leahy (D-Vt.)
  • Dick Lugar (R-Ind.)
  • Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)
  • Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)
  • Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)
  • Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)
  • Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
  • Jim Risch (R-Idaho)
  • Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
  • Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)
  • Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)
  • Jon Tester (D-Mont.)
  • John Thune (R-S.D.)
  • Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
  • Tom Udall (D-N.M.)
  • Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)