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Senate farm bill cloture vote Thursday; Roberts hopes to finish June 14

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The Senate is expected to hold a cloture vote on a motion to proceed on the farm bill on Thursday, possibly in the morning, and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., hopes the bill will be finished by next Thursday.

Roberts and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., held a news conference Wednesday at which they made a case to the general media that Congress should pass a new farm bill this year, and made comments on the schedule.

Stabenow has said many times that she has the 60 votes to proceed on the bill and also that she believes she has the votes to pass it.

It’s unclear how many amendments there may be on the bill, but some — both germane and otherwise — have surfaced. Stabenow said she and Roberts are willing to consider any amendments, as they did in committee.

“If somebody has a problem with the bill, come to us,” Stabenow said, adding that members of the committee had brought forward more than 100 amendments and that 44 had been added.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., went to the floor on Wednesday to urge her fellow senators to vote for cloture, but said she will offer an amendment to eliminate the $4 billion cut to food stamps by making changes in the crop insurance program.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said in a floor speech Wednesday afternoon that he would support an amendment to make “minor” changes to the sugar program and that he and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would offer an amendment making changes to crop insurance.

A long list of farm and rural development groups sent senators a letter today urging support for an amendment to be offered by Sen. Sherrod Brown, R-Ohio, to put mandatory funding for rural development programs into the bill. A spokesman for the coalition said it does not include an offset, but urges the Senate to use savings in the bill beyond $23 billion to pay for it.

For farmers, the most controversial amendments will be those dealing with crop insurance.

The Senate bill continues the current crop insurance program and expands it for fruits and vegetables. Crop insurance is expected to cost $9 billion per year, making it the most expensive of farm programs and bringing calls for restrictions on the income levels of people who get subsidized premiums or on the amount of subsidy farmers can get and the amount of service fees and profits companies and agents can get.

Stabenow and Roberts said they would defend crop insurance against cuts.

“Crop insurance is the core,” Stabenow said, noting that farmers all over the country had said it is the most important farm program

Roberts said he expects Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to offer a defense-related amendment and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to offer an amendment related to union clearance of pay raises.

Stabenow said she would try to accommodate all amendments, but if she sees that senators are trying to stop the process, she will seek help from the Senate leadership to take procedural actions to move the bill forward.

At the news conference, Stabenow made the case she has made countless times to farm groups: that the bill will save $23.6 billion over 10 years compared with a continuation of the current bill, that it ends the direct payments program that critics detest and makes other reforms, that it creates a new market-oriented commodity program and that passage of a new farm bill this year is vital for the economy because farmers need stability and 16 million American jobs depend on agriculture.

“Nobody has more risk" than farmers and ranchers, Stabenow said. “It’s time to act. We’ve done our job in bringing this bill out,” a reference to her committee’s bipartisan passage of the bill in April.

Roberts, a former House Agriculture Committee chairman, noted that this is his seventh farm bill and that this bill really is “dramatic” in its changes.

When other senators ask him why the current bill shouldn’t just be extended, Roberts said he tells them that the 2008 bill now in effect is based on 25-year old concepts and acreage bases.

Roberts called the new bill “a good bill, a reform bill, a jobs bill,” and said it will help a new generation of farmers, reduce problems the United States has at the World Trade Organization and provide the basis for feeding a world population expected to increase to 9 billion people.

But while Roberts was praising the new revenue-based commodity program, southern rice and peanut growers were encouraging senators to organize against it.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., joined by senators Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and John Boozman, R-Ark., are demanding concessions for rice and peanut farmers to move the bill forward, Congressional Quarterly reported today.

Boozman told CQ that the southern farm supporters would join with southerners critical of farm programs on procedural measures. But that strategy has its limits, since the southern farm supporters ultimately want to pass a bill.

Sarah Leonard

Sarah Leonard

At the news conference, Stabenow and Roberts were flanked by young farmers from Michigan and Virginia who said they need the new bill this year.

Ben LaCross, a cherry grower from Michigan, said that if the new bill had been in place this year he could have gotten insurance on his cherry crop, most of which was lost due to an early spring and then frost. LaCross said his usual cherry is 4 million pounds, but this year will be only 40,000 pounds.

Sarah Leonard, a Virginia dairy farmer, also said she needs the new dairy program in the bill. “I would like to sell milk and not sell my land to developers,” she said.