The Senate on Monday opened debate on a $955 billion farm bill that would reduce federal spending by as much as $23 billion over the next 10 years by cutting funding for food stamps and eliminating some farm-support programs.
"This legislation will create jobs, cut taxpayer subsidies and reduce the deficit," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday.
The White House offered only conditional support for the bill, an indication that lawmakers will need to make changes to win the president's signature.
The Obama administration in April called for a 3 percent reduction in the nation's crop insurance program, saving $4.2 billion over 10 years. But farm state lawmakers rejected any proposed reduction to a program that pays 60 percent of a farmer's cost of buying crop insurance. The Senate bill actually would increase spending on those programs and expand them to cotton and peanut growers.
The Obama administration wants to cut farm subsidies by $37.8 billion, but the Senate bill would reduce those by $24.4 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. To reduce spending further, senators propose making cuts Obama does not support, including reducing the food stamps program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, by $4.1 billion over 10 years.
"The administration," the White House said in a statement released Monday, "strongly supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a cornerstone of our nation's food assistance safety net, which is why it was not subject to cuts in the president's budget. SNAP helps families put food on the table, while also benefitting farm and rural economies."
Restoring funding for food stamps will likely be difficult for the administration.
The House version of the farm bill would cut food stamps even further than the Senate proposes. The House wants to cut the program by $20 billion, so it's likely that a final compromise will have to include food stamp cuts.
Senate Agricultural Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., defended the reduction, which she said represents a tiny portion of the $700 billion food stamp funding over the next decade. The savings come, in part, from a change in the eligibility guidelines and by declaring lottery winners ineligible for SNAP.
"We made sure our food assistance programs are accountable, and we made sure our changes would not remove one single needy family," Stabenow said Monday. "It's not about hurting folks, it's about making sure there is not abuse and that is what we address."
Crop insurance is likely to come under attack in the Senate this week.
A bipartisan trio of senators is already trying to amend the bill to strike $14 billion a year for crop insurance payments to tobacco growers, according to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the amendment's sponsors.
McCain argued that the nation's tobacco companies should not be receiving any form of government subsidy.
"Tobacco is 10 times more profitable than corn," McCain said. "It makes no sense to subsidize tobacco insurance considering how well the free-market system is working for tobacco producers."
But Stabenow countered that tobacco growers account for less than 1 percent of the insurance program's overall cost.
Debate will continue in the Senate this week. The House could vote on a farm bill in June.