WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has given its final approval to a sweeping five-year farm bill that provides food for the needy and subsidies for farmers.
Ending years of political battles, the Senate on Tuesday sent the measure to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it. The Senate passed the bill 68-32.
The bill provides a financial cushion for farmers who face unpredictable weather and market conditions. But the bulk of its nearly $100 billion-a-year cost is for the food stamp program, which aids 1 in 7 Americans.
House Republicans had hoped to trim the bill’s costs, pointing to a booming agriculture sector in recent years and saying the now $80 billion-a-year food stamp program has spiraled out of control. Partisan disagreements stalled the bill for more than two years, but conservatives were eventually outnumbered as the Democratic Senate, the White House and a still-powerful bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers pushed to get the bill done.
The final compromise bill would get rid of controversial subsidies known as direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. But most of that program’s $4.5 billion annual cost was redirected into new, more politically defensible subsidies that would kick in when a farmer has losses. The food stamp program was cut about 1 percent; the House had pushed for five times that much.
Those incentives scattered throughout the bill — a boost for crop insurance popular in the Midwest and higher subsidies for Southern rice and peanut farmers, for example — helped the bill pass easily in the House last week, 251-166. House leaders who had objected to the legislation since 2011 softened their disapproval as they sought to put the long-stalled bill behind them. Leaders in both parties also have hoped to bolster rural candidates in this year’s midterm elections.
The final savings in the food stamp program, $800 million a year, would come from cracking down on some states that seek to boost individual food stamp benefits by giving people small amounts of federal heating assistance that they don’t need. That heating assistance, sometimes as low as $1 per person, triggers higher benefits, and some critics see that practice as circumventing the law. The compromise bill would require states to give individual recipients at least $20 in heating assistance before a higher food stamp benefit could kick in.
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