By Niels Lesniewski
Negotiations over a tangle of amendments trumped substance last week, as Senate leaders engaged in a fruitless search for a deal on how to proceed to farm policy legislation, pushing debate into another week. Senators did reject proposed changes on sugar price supports and food stamps, indicating that majority support for the bipartisan bill remains intact.
Although the five-year reauthorization (S 3240) has drawn widespread support, several factions emerged last week to offer amendments on a variety of fronts, some dealing with farm policy and others touching on matters unrelated to the bill, from overall budget policy to aid for Pakistan.
While principals in the debate dealt behind the scenes with the stalemate, the Senate did dispense with two proposed amendments.
Senators voted 50-46 on June 13 to table a Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., proposal that would repeal the federal price support program for sugar producers. The vote was more along geographical than partisan lines, with 16 Republicans and 34 Democratic caucus members voting to table, and 30 Republicans and 16 Democrats opposed.
The amendment on sugar prices would have saved consumers about $3.5 billion a year by reducing the cost of sugar, said Shaheen, who previously introduced the proposal as a stand-alone bill (S 25).
"For years, the sugar industry has been getting a sweet deal, and American consumers and businesses have had to pay for it," she said. "The sugar program should be eliminated to help small businesses in New Hampshire meet their bottom lines and put money back into the pockets of consumers."
Supporters of the price-support program said it has no real cost to taxpayers and has at best a negligible effect on the cost of food.
"A series of claims have been made about the U.S. sugar program that I believe are just false," said Kent Conrad, D-N.D., highlighting a Congressional Budget Office estimate that the program under current demand will have no cost over the next 10 years.
The system of price supports has for years pitted sugar producers against consumers and businesses that purchase sugar for their products.
Also on June 13, senators voted down a Rand Paul, R-Ky., amendment, 65-33, that would eliminate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, and replace it with block grants to states to operate their own programs to provide nutritional assistance to the poor. Thirteen Republicans joined a united Democratic caucus in that vote.
Paul has suggested that the block grants, under which states could exercise more control over eligibility, could reduce fraud and save money.
Going in the opposite direction, New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced an amendment to delete the bill's proposed cuts to SNAP and instead cut subsidies to the federal crop insurance program by $4.5 billion over 10 years. Although Gillibrand has won some support for her bid, Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has warned that the House is likely to cut even more from SNAP and that compromise is necessary.
Negotiations on Amendments
For most of last week, Stabenow -- along with ranking committee member and co-sponsor Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- negotiated with other senators on how many and what type of amendments to allow. Late in the week, Stabenow said she hoped a deal could be worked out to allow votes on several dozen amendments this week to clear the way for a vote on passage.
Stabenow said June 14 that there "could be a couple dozen" amendments, signaling that Reid was trying to work out a deal based on a framework suggested by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who on June 13 called for votes on about 40 amendments in succession.
As the discussions continued, Coburn and other Republicans criticized the mannerin which Reid has been presenting amendments to the bill. "It would seem to me the process we're planning now is that the leader is deciding what amendments we will vote on and what we won't," Coburn said. "What we're playing now is a game of low-priority amendments versus high-priority amendments in the name of saying we're doing something."
Saxby Chambliss , R-Ga., another critic of the bill, said June 14 that he had seen a list of potential amendment votes and believed that it would not satisfy Republicans. "I saw a list that had one of my amendments on it. That's not going to be enough," said Chambliss.
In particular, Chambliss has been pressing for an amendment that would rip up language designed to alter policy on helping economically distressed crop farmers. The Stabenow-Roberts bill would shift coverage from a direct payment to a crop insurance system, which Southern senators from both parties say would harm rice and peanut farmers. Corn growers generally support the change.
Stabenow said she has encouraged discussions between Conrad and Chambliss over a possible amendment that could make the commodity provisions more palatable to Southerners.
Also under discussion were proposals from Coburn and Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
The Coburn amendment would terminate a pair of Agriculture Department conservation efforts: the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The latter is considered one of the most popular programs in the entire bill because it provides financial and technical assistance to a wide variety of agricultural producers.
DeMint offered language that would make all of the money in the farm bill discretionary spending. The effect would be to subject programs to the annual appropriations process.
Non-germane amendments under discussion include one from Paul that would bar foreign aid to Pakistan because of the prosecution in that country of a doctor who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden.
John McCain of Arizona is pushing an amendment that would highlight the effect of next year's planned budget sequester on national security. If Congress does not act to change the terms of last year's debt ceiling law (PL 112-25), government agencies of all stripes, including the Pentagon, face across-the-board spending cuts. On June 12, McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and two other GOP senators -- John Thune of South Dakota and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- took to the floor to urge colleagues to avert the sequester. Their amendment would require the Pentagon to report to Congress by August on the effect of the sequester on national security.