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White House supports farm bill after Senate votes to proceed

The Senate voted 90 to 8 today on a motion to proceed on the farm bill, and the White House issued a strong statement of support in favor of the bill.

The vote was an enormous victory for Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., especially since farm-minded southern senators voted for it. It is unclear whether any deal has been reached to satisfy rice and peanut growers, who have said the commodity title in the bill will not be a proper safety net for them.

The White House said it expects to work with Congress on a few concerns it has.

“The administration greatly appreciates the Senate’s bipartisan efforts to enact a farm bill,” said a statement of administration policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget. “With authorization for farm- and food-related programs set to expire this year, it is critical that the Congress pass legislation that provides certainty for rural America and includes needed reforms and savings."

The senators who voted against the motion to proceed on the legislation are all Republicans known as fiscal conservatives: Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Cornyn of Texas, Jim De Mint of South Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah.

Two Republican senators did not vote: Dean Vitter of Louisiana and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

The Senate did not proceed immediately on the bill and it was unclear when debate might begin. Roberts has said he would like the bill finished by next Thursday, but lobbyists said that schedule is optimistic.

Stabenow and Roberts issued a news release urging the Senate to act quickly.

“The 2008 farm bill is set to expire at the end of September — we must pass this commonsense bill immediately to give farmers the certainty they need to continue growing the economy," Stabenow said. “Sixteen million American jobs rely on agriculture. The time for reform is now.”

“We’ve cut mandatory spending by $23.6 billion,” Roberts said. “We’ve reformed, eliminated and streamlined USDA programs to the tune of more than 100 programs and authorizations eliminated. We’ve done it on a voluntary basis and in a bipartisan fashion. Simply put, this bill is commonsense reform and needs to be approved now to provide certainty for our farmers and ranchers to make planning decisions and to help our economic recovery.”

The White House statement said the bill “makes meaningful progress toward the administration's goals.”

“Notable reforms include eliminating the direct payment system; tightening payment and eligibility requirements; strengthening access to healthy, affordable food; protecting emergency food aid programs and authorities; and increasing flexibility in the delivery of international food aid,” the White House statement said.

The statement added that “the administration supports the Senate’s efforts to consolidate and streamline conservation assistance, which will reduce administrative burdens on farmers and ranchers and improve environmental outcomes. The bill’s funding for bioenergy programs will enhance our energy security while supporting innovation and growth in rural economies.”

But the statement also said that the administration “looks forward to working with the Congress to achieve crop insurance and commodity program savings that are not contained in S. 3240, while at the same time strengthening the farm safety net in times of need and supporting the next generation of farmers.”

The White House noted that the administration “strongly supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a cornerstone of our nation’s food assistance safety net, which is why it was not subject to cuts in the president's budget.”

But the statement did not list any specific objections to the $4 billion in SNAP cuts that are in the bill. It also said that the administration will also work with Congress “to structure reporting requirements” and create the agricultural research foundation in the bill that would raise private sector money.

The National Milk Producers Federation and the National Corn Growers Association issued news releases praising the action on the procedural hurdle and urging quick action.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, issued a news release urging support for their amendment that would allow dairy industry groups to present milk pricing reforms to USDA for consideration in a public hearing setting; eliminate the end-product price formula to set prices for class III milk; and order the secretary of Agriculture to release the department’s final proposal to industry organizations for approval by referendum.

“The last thing Maine’s more than 300 dairy farms — many of them small businesses — need in these tumultuous economic times is an outdated and unfair federal pricing scheme that would undercut their competitiveness and prosperity in the marketplace,” said Snowe, ranking member of the Senate Small Business Committee.

“It is critical we protect our farmers, who have created over 4,000 good paying jobs in Maine, from new government imposed pricing schemes that subjectively regulate the dairy market,” Snowe said. “I hope my colleagues will support our commonsense amendment to aid this critical segment of our economy.”

“For years, New York’s dairy farms have endured volatility in the market — as feed and fuel costs rise, the price of milk plummeted,” said Gillibrand. “When our family farms suffer, our whole state and whole economy suffer. Our farmers deserve a better, more just pricing system.”