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Senate Farm Bill Duo Struggle to Find Footing

DC Dialogue

Farm bill bipartisanship cooperation between Stabenow and her Republican counterpart less enthusiastic in 2013.

Published on: June 7, 2013

It really shouldn't be a surprise that Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow's new farm bill dance partner Sen. Thad Cochran may not be as graceful as last year's.

Stabenow and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., seemed to pull off the impossible last year in a Senate deeply divided and debate stymied by partisan politics.

After last year's Senate farm bill debate and passage, I had a renewed sense of pride in the way our government works. Bipartisan cooperation between the top two ag committee members in addition to an open debate on many amendments was a sight to be seen.

This year, I can't say the same with much less lockstep between Republicans and Democrats.

The farm bill was brought to the Senate floor less than a week after it passed out of committee. However, once it reached the floor, only 13 of the 250 amendments have been voted on.

Last year the Senate voted on 73 amendments.

During the first week of debate, Stabenow, D-Mich., said she was working with her colleague ranking member Cochran, R-Miss., to develop a "finite list" of amendments to be brought to the floor. However, this week only two additional amendments were debated and it seems the duo continue to struggle to find their footing together.

The first new amendment introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., would require a study on evaluating crop insurance for alfalfa. It passed 72-18.

The Senate also voted by a voice vote an amendment that would slightly boost dollars to buy locally-grown food close to needy areas abroad. However, the amendment from Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., calls for $60 million (a $20 million annual increase from the original bill) for the local purchase program, but still only a fraction compared to the current $1.8 spent on food aid and much less than President Barack Obama’s overhaul of food aid proposed in his budget this year.

The only other amendment for sure that is set to receive a full Senate vote is from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. It would establish a narrow pilot program within the existing Rural Utilities Service Broadband program that is reauthorized by the Farm Bill to test investment in ultra-high speed gigabit projects in rural areas. 

Reports indicate Stabenow and Cochran continue to pursue a pared-down list of amendments to the final bill, which could come up as a package of amendments to be voted on or agreed to by unanimous consent before final passage on Monday. But any of these final amendments likely will not be controversial.

The Senate voted Thursday morning to invoke cloture, passing 75-22. It was a good test of the political will in the Senate on whether bipartisanship still exists in the chamber.

All of the 22 nays on the cloture votes were Republicans, which in itself isn't surprising. However, last year's farm bill co-champion Roberts, R-Kan., voted against the cloture vote. He also voted against the farm bill out of committee because of what he called a step away from reform with the bills catering to Southern interests with increased target prices.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., expressed frustration on the Farm Bill amendment process Thursday on the floor.  During remarks that focused mostly on an amendment he had filed regarding target prices in Title I of the measure, he indicated that, “Several of my colleagues and I pointed out during the debate on the Farm Bill during the Ag. Committee, we have deep concerns over what we believe is a step backwards in the Commodity Title with the creation of the Adverse Market Payments, or what we refer to as the ‘AMP’ Program." (video replay of Sen. Thune’s remarks here).

After a cloture vote, no more than 30 hours of debate may occur, and no amendments may be moved unless they were filed on the day in between the presentation of the petition and the actual cloture vote.

According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate will vote on final passage of the farm bill on Monday at 5:30 EDT.

Passage seems likely in the Senate, but does it have what the chamber needs in terms of getting a compromise and final package with the House? That remains to be seen.

House farm bill debate is expected to begin the week of June 17. House Members have started introducing legislation to lay the groundwork for possible amendments, especially in regard to crop insurance limits, to that chamber’s version of a 2013 Farm Bill.