Senate votes overwhelmingly to renew farm programs

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday for a sweeping agriculture bill that will fund key farm safety net programs for the next five years without making significant changes to the food stamp program.

The vote was 87-13. The House is expected to pass the measure soon and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the bill up for a quick vote Tuesday, less than one day after the House and Senate reached an agreement on the final text.

The measure is the result of months of negotiations, and does not make any significant changes — despite pressure from President Donald Trump — to the food stamp program that serves nearly 40 million low-income Americans.

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“This is what happens when the Congress works in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., ahead of the vote. “It’s a good bill that accomplishes what we set out to do: provide certainty and predictability for farmers and families in rural communities.”

The legislation sets federal agricultural and food policy for five years and provides more than $400 billion in farm subsidies, conservation programs and food aid for the poor. It reauthorizes crop insurance and conservation programs and funds trade programs, bioenergy production and organic farming research. It also reduces the cost for struggling dairy producers to sign up for support programs and legalizes the cultivation of industrial hemp, an initiative championed by McConnell.

One thing the bill doesn’t have: tighter work requirements for food stamp recipients, a provision of the House bill that became a major sticking point during negotiations.

“We maintain a strong safety net for farmers and importantly, we maintain a strong safety net for our families,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the most senior Democrat on the agriculture committee. “We said no to harmful changes that would take food away from families, and instead increased program integrity and job training to be able to make sure things should be working as they should and every dollar is used as it should be.”

The House bill would have raised the age of recipients subject to work requirements from 49 to 59 and required parents with children older than 6 years to work or participate in job training. The House measure also sought to limit circumstances under which families who qualify for other poverty programs can automatically be eligible for SNAP, and earmarked $1 billion to expand work-training programs.

By contrast, the bipartisan Senate bill, which passed 86-11, offered modest adjustments to existing farm programs and made no changes to SNAP.

Throughout the negotiation process Trump made his support for work requirements clear, tweeting about the issue multiple times. But negotiators ultimately rejected the most controversial House measures related to SNAP, making no significant changes to the program. The outcome is a victory for Democrats, who refused to support them.

The final bill also preserves states’ ability to provide waivers, and does not change eligibility criteria. It does increase funding for employment and job training programs from $90 million to roughly $103.9 million per year.

The two chambers also clashed over portions of the bill’s forestry and conservation sections. But the most contentious pieces of the House version, such as relaxing restrictions on pesticide use, didn’t make it into the final text.

Negotiations were complicated in recent weeks when the White House asked Congress to make changes to the forestry section in response to deadly wildfires in California, giving more authority to the Agriculture and Interior departments to clear forests and other public lands. The final text doesn’t significantly increase the agencies’ authority.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Monday the bill “maintains a strong safety net for the farm economy, invests in critical agricultural research and will promote agriculture exports through robust trade programs,” but voiced disappointment over the failed changes to the work requirement.

“While we would have liked to see more progress on work requirements for SNAP recipients and forest management reforms, the conference agreement does include several helpful provisions, and we will continue to build upon these through our authorities,” he said.

The bill also maintains current limits on farm subsidies, but includes a House provision to expand the definition of family to include first cousins, nieces and nephews, making them eligible for payments under the program.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, a strong proponent of stricter work requirements, thanked Perdue and the administration for their support.

“America’s farmers and ranchers are weathering the fifth year of severe recession, so passing a farm bill this week that strengthens the farm safety net is vitally important,” Conaway said.

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