By Sarah Robinson
The U.S. Senate on Monday began debate of the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013.
Last week, the Senate Committee on Agriculture passed the five-year bill, 15-5, in near record-setting fashion.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is the committee chair and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is the ranking minority member.
Stabenow said the ease with which the bill passed through the committee "sends a strong signal that we can get this done and sent on to the President."
The Senate version of the farm bill reflects the changes legislators and industry officials have sought in recent years.
Stabenow said the committee went through painstaking processes to streamline the bill that, if enacted, would save taxpayers $23 billion. She said the commodities title ends direct payments to farmers and instead strengthens crop insurance and risk management programs in lieu of subsidies.
The legislation subsidizes crop insurance as aid to farmers in cases of disastrous weather and market failures but will not authorize direct payments to farmers in profitable years as some programs have in the past.
Cochran said this will ensure a safety net is in place for farmers and also will "help create an environment for profitable agriculture" based on a healthy free-market enterprise system.
SNAP cuts proposed
The bill also addresses the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal program that provides food stamps for qualified families.
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill make cuts to the program to differing degrees. Lawmakers insist cuts are not aimed at limiting benefits to needy families.
"As the economy fell apart a number of years ago, many families that paid taxes and worked hard all their lives to their horror found themselves in need of help," said Stabenow. He said cuts to the program are aimed at eliminating fraud and closing loopholes that permit unqualified people from receiving benefits.
On Tuesday, Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced opposing amendments to the SNAP title. While Roberts' plan would increase cuts to the food stamp program, the Gillibrand amendment would reverse the $4.1 billion in proposed cuts.
Both amendments failed, signaling the Senate may be unlikely to waiver on the level of cuts to the program if the bill goes to conference.
The level of reform to the food stamp program has been contentious so far and is likely to be a source of debate. The House of Representatives Agriculture Committee has approved its own version of the farm bill that calls for cuts in excess of $20 billion.
The House version of the bill is likely to be introduced on the floor after Memorial Day. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., said passing a final piece of legislation is important for Mississippi.
"The economy in Mississippi is driven by two things -- manufacturing and agriculture," he said. "When those two things do well, the rest of the economy thrives."
Nunnelee said reforms to the federal food stamp program are critical to the eventual passage of a joint bill.
"I don't see a farm bill passing the House without food stamp reform," he said.
Nunnelee said the Obama administration expanded the rule of categorical eligibility, making food stamps accessible. He said the cost of food stamps to the American taxpayer has doubled in the past five years and will likely double over the next five without serious reform.
He added that 75 percent of the total cost of the bill is tied to the food stamp program. Nunnelee also said that about half of food stamp recipients receive aid for 180 days or less, while about the same amount are on food stamps for an average of seven years.
Nunnelee said there is a culture of people passing dependency on government aid from one generation to the next.
"I think we will still find a way to make sure those who are really needy get into the program," he said.
Congress has not passed a farm bill since 2008.
Cochran said he is hopeful but acknowledges that getting a bill through conference will take compromise and cooperation from both parties. "That's going to be the biggest challenge," he said of getting similar legislation passed through the House.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said, "The Chair in the Senate and the House (agriculture committees) have a great bipartisan working relationship."
He reiterated the speed with which it cleared committee is a good sign of its support.
"In general, people realize a farm bill is one of the best jobs bills we can have," Wicker said.
Stabenow said 16 million people have jobs tied to agriculture.