Farm Bill Clears House, On Its Way To Senate

After two years of fits and starts, a new farm bill appears on the verge of passing Congress. The House passed the 959-page proposal on Wednesday, with the Senate likely to pass it next week. The compromise cuts $8 billion from food stamps over the next decade and replaces farm subsidies with more extensive crop insurance.

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The Republican-run House of Representatives accomplished a feat of across-the-aisle cooperation today. A minority of House Democrats joined a majority of Republicans to pass a five-year renewal of the Farm Bill. The bill had been mired in partisan disputes for nearly two years. The most divisive issue was the food stamp program. It is by far the Farm Bill's biggest expenditure, and Republicans wanted to shrink it. As NPR's David Welna reports, the bill that passed does include some cuts but they'll be much smaller than many had sought.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Last fall, House Republicans passed a measure slashing $40 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade. That's nearly five times the amount that ended up getting cut in the Farm Bill the House passed today in a 251-166 vote. Agricultural Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, who negotiated the final deal with his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, portrayed the food stamps cut as a trade-off for bolstering the food supply.

REPRESENTATIVE FRANK LUCAS: No matter how much money we spend on supplemental programs to make sure our fellow citizens have enough to eat - and that's important - never forget, if there's not a product on the shelf, if there's not meat in the case, if there's not vegetables or fruit available, it doesn't matter how much you subsidize. The food has to be there.

WELNA: The fight over food stamps pitted rural lawmakers looking to help farmers against urban members with constituents going through hard times. Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern said the bill makes hunger worse in America, not better.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: Thousands and thousands of low-income Americans will see their already meager food benefits shrink. And for what? Why? To meet some arbitrary deficit reduction goal, to pay the cost of the giveaways and the crop insurance program, to pay for the sweetheart deals for the sushi rice growers and the peanut farmers and God knows who else?

WELNA: McGovern and more than a hundred other Democrats voted against the farm bill, as did 63 Republicans. One of them was Tim Huelskamp, a farmer from western Kansas, who sought deeper cuts to the food stamp program.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM HUELSKAMP: We have massive growth. This is the fastest growing welfare program in the entire federal government. And today's actions, if approved, would lock in record-high levels of spending for food stamps.

WELNA: But others pointed out that the bill ends the practice of paying farmers nearly $5 billion a year in subsidies whether or not they grow crops on their land. For Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz, the bill could have been worse.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM WALZ: Of course, it's not perfect. If you want perfect, you'll get that in heaven. And at times, this place is closer to hell. So this is a pretty good compromise that we've come up with.

WELNA: The Farm Bill now heads to the Senate, where a vote is expected within days. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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