Bipartisan Support Boosts Farm Bill Through Senate

The massive farm bill cleared the Senate on Thursday, setting up negotiations with the House over changes in a number of programs, including crop insurance and food stamps.

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In the Senate today, a bipartisan moment. Senators approved a nearly $1 trillion farm bill with support from both sides of the aisle. The bill makes big changes to farm policy, and it cuts the deficit, as NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The last two-and-a-half days have been a farm bill vote-o-rama, with some 70 amendments coming to the floor in rapid succession. The biggest shift in this bill, compared to the 2008 version, is that it ends direct payments to farmers. Some of those savings go to boosting crop insurance. Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow heads the Senate Agriculture Committee.

SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW: This is about changing from a system of subsidies regardless of risk or circumstance or price in the economy to one that relates to risk and risk management.

KEITH: The expansion of crop insurance has its critics, among them Southern state farmers and spending hawks. One amendment that passed would reduce insurance subsidies for farmers with an adjusted gross income over $750,000. Today's votes focused on amendments completely unrelated to farming. One, from Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, would take taxpayer funding away from the party conventions.

SENATOR TOM COBURN: If we can't do this, this little simple thing of leading by example, then our country is doomed because that means the very significant problems in front of us we can't solve, either.

KEITH: The amendment passed 95 to 4. On the topic of those very significant problems, Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican John McCain offered an amendment requiring the Obama administration to detail the automatic spending cuts set to take effect in January. These deep cuts, known as sequestration, were part of the debt ceiling deal last year with the idea that they'd be so scary Congress would come up with something better. So far, Murray says that hasn't happened.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: We all should know exactly how the administration would enact sequestration if we do not get a deal.

KEITH: This bipartisan amendment passed on a voice vote with no objections. As the farm bill debate went on, senators seemed to look around and realize something unusual was happening. Kansas Republican Pat Roberts is the ranking member of the Senate Ag Committee.

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: Maybe we've done something special here in signaling to the American people that in the middle of a tough election year, we can actually get something done.

KEITH: A number of senators wondered aloud if maybe, just maybe, this means it would be possible to reach an agreement to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. One early test will be this farm bill. There are significant differences with the House version, which is scheduled to come up in committee next month.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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