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Senate set to pass half-trillion dollar farm bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is poised to pass a five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill Monday that would expand government subsidies for crop insurance, rice and peanuts while making small cuts in the food stamp program.

Farm-Bill-Q Sidd

FILE - This May 15, 2103 file photo shows stacks of paperwork prepared for members of House Agriculture Committee, who are meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. This week the Senate resumes debate on the about the almost $100 billion-a-year, massive, five-year farm bill that would set policy for farm subsidies and food stamps. The bill covers everything from protecting environmentally sensitive land to international food aid to rural communications services. The House is expected to consider their version in June or July. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The bill, which costs almost $100 billion annually, also would eliminate subsidies that are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. All told, it would save about $2.4 billion a year on the farm and nutrition programs, including across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year.

Pointing to those cuts, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., says the legislation is the "most reform-minded farm bill in decades." But it would still generously subsidize corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, sugar and other major crops grown by U.S. farmers. It would also set policy for programs to protect environmentally sensitive land, international food aid and other projects to help rural communities.

The Senate passed a similar farm bill last year on a bipartisan 64-35 vote.

The House is expected to take up its own version of the farm bill as early as this month, in what could be a contentious and much more partisan floor fight over domestic food aid, which makes up almost 80 percent of the bill's cost. Last year, the House declined to take up the legislation during an election year and amid disagreements over how much should be cut from the food stamp program, which now serves one in seven Americans and cost almost $80 billion last year. That cost has more than doubled since 2008.

The bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee last month would make much larger cuts to food stamps than the Senate version, in a bid to gain support from those House conservatives who have opposed the measure. The Senate bill would cut the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by about $400 million a year, or half a percent. The House bill would cut the program by $2 billion a year, or a little more than 3 percent, and make it more difficult for some people to qualify.

The Senate rejected amendments on food stamp cuts, preserving the $400 million annual decrease. The bill's farm-state supporters also fended off efforts to cut sugar, tobacco and other farm supports.

Senators looking to pare back subsidies did win one victory on the Senate, an amendment to reduce the government's share of crop insurance premiums for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said their amendment would affect about 20,000 farmers.

Stabenow argued the amendment would result in fewer people buying insurance and undercut a separate provision in the bill that would require farmers buying crop insurance to comply with certain environmental standards on their land.

Currently the government pays for an average 62 percent of crop insurance premiums and also subsidizes the companies that sell the insurance. The overall bill expands crop insurance for many crops and also creates a program to compensate farmers for smaller, or "shallow," revenue losses before the paid insurance kicks in.

The crop insurance expansion is likely to benefit Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, who use crop insurance more than other farmers. The bill would also boost subsidies for Southern rice and peanut farmers, lowering the threshold for those farms to receive government help.

The help for rice and peanuts was not in last year's bill but was added this year after the agriculture panel gained a new top Republican, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. Critics, including the former top Republican on the committee, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, said the new policy could guarantee that the rice and peanut farmers' profits are average or above average.

The bill also would:

— Overhaul dairy policy by creating a new insurance program for dairy producers, eliminating other dairy subsidies and price supports. The new policy includes a market stabilization program that could dictate production cuts when oversupply drives down prices. The program faced little opposition in the Senate but a similar overhaul in the House bill is expected to face resistance in that chamber, where House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has called the new stabilization program "Soviet-style."

— Make modest changes to the way international food aid is delivered, a much scaled-back version of an overhaul proposed by President Barack Obama earlier this year. Senators adopted an amendment that would slightly boost dollars to buy locally-grown food close to needy areas abroad. Currently, most food aid is grown in the United States and shipped to developing countries, an approach the Obama administration says is inefficient but that has support among farm-state members in Congress.

— Consolidate programs to protect environmentally-sensitive land and reduce spending on those programs.

— Expand Agriculture Department efforts to prevent illegal trafficking of food stamp benefits.

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