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Bipartisan Senate farm bill gains momentum with 20-1 committee vote

WASHINGTON— A strongly bipartisan 20-1 vote by the Senate Ag Committee on Wednesday, June 13, has sent the five-year 2018 Farm Bill to the full Senate and added momentum to get the measure passed by the time the current bill expires on Sept. 30.

The senators hope the House will then hold another vote on its version of the bill that was defeated in May to send it to a conference committee for a final agreement.

Upper Midwest senators, in what was a somewhat rare move of bipartisanship, praised what has been accomplished so far in interviews and news releases Wednesday and were in agreement that the measure was a priority.

"I am beyond thrilled, " said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., in a teleconference with reporters. "Members put regional and individual concerns to the side and got a strong, bipartisan bill across the finish line."

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said, "Every farm bill is important, but given today's low commodity prices and an overall sluggish agriculture economy, it is critical that we get a new farm bill to the president's desk before the current one expires."

Thune has repeatedly pointed out that farm prices are about half of what they were 10 years ago.

Another senator on the panel that is heavy with Upper Midwest members, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., added in a statement, "Our farmers are facing a lot right now—everything from low prices to late winter weather in the Midwest. It makes it even more important that we come together with a solid and consistent farm policy out of the Congress when farmers are facing those kinds of headwinds. All in all, this has been a great effort and a sign to our rural communities that we're going to have some consistency coming out of the United States Senate."

Also voting for the bill on the panel was North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven who pointed to some of its accomplishments.

He said the bill "will provide producers with the tools they need to succeed. That includes strong crop insurance, improvements to the ARC program and strong support for agriculture research. The committee also approved my amendments to provide farmers and ranchers with access to more capital, as well as to make improvements to help make the wetland conservation title more farmer-friendly."

The bill, which hasn't got a price tag yet as the Congressional Budget Office is working out the details, faces an uncertain future in the full Senate. Heitkamp thinks the strong support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top leaders, along with the bipartisan nature of the bill, will get it approved.

The House may have had a breakthrough on Wednesday for the farm bill as some House members who voted against it because of a spat over immigration learned they will get to vote on those measures next week.

Thus, with those immigration votes planned next week, GOP House leaders have said another vote on the farm bill could come as soon as June 22.

Despite no price tag on the Senate bill yet, it appears there will be no new funding for the 2018 bill, so farm supports would be little changed from levels set in 2014.

However, Heitkamp and Thune said crop insurance protections, a major concern for most senators as they strive to keep a safety net in place for producers, appears to have survived without any cuts so far.

Heitkamp expects amendments on the Senate floor to cut the program, but she said there's little chance of that happening as she believes the bill will survive mostly as it was written by the committee.

A struggle still unsettled, however, is the Conservation Reserve Program acres. The House wants to expand it to 29 million acres from the current 24 million acres. But the Senate bill is at 25 million acres, although Thune hasn't given up yet on increasing the acres to protect South Dakota's pheasant and wildlife hunting lands. He received assurances Wednesday from Senate leaders that they would work on increasing the number on the Senate floor.

Thune is shooting now for 26.25 million acres, as the 30 million acres he once hoped for would add about $3 billion more to the bill.

Another battle when it comes to dealing with the House is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which accounts for about 80 percent of the overall farm bill likely to be in the range of nearly $87 billion a year or about $435 billion over five years. No firm estimates are known yet, however.

The 2014 Farm Bill was $489 billion for five years.

Despite some struggles that lie ahead, the Senate bill may have avoided one big fight. Senators put off any stiffer rules proposed by the House for able-bodied food stamp recipients such as raising the work requirement of 20 hours a week for people up from age 49 to 59 and no longer exempting parents or caretakers with children 6 years old and older.

Thus, the Senate bill appears to have a stronger chance to pass as support from urban-state senators and representatives, who often oppose major changes to SNAP, is needed.

Heitkamp understands concerns from both sides on the food stamp issue but said that with two-thirds of wage earners in the U.S. making under $20 an hour it sometimes is tough to make ends meet.

She recalled talking with a minister from a small town in North Dakota recently who said he relies on food stamps because he wasn't paid enough to feed his family.

The senator said there are about 54,000 North Dakotans on food stamps and that 73 percent are families with children and 33 percent had family members who are senior citizens or disabled.

"Many, many people don't stay on the program. It's more of an emergency aid program for many families," Heitkamp said.

Another point of contention as the farm bill moves ahead is the potential trade tariff war that President Trump is raising, this coming as farmers are becoming increasingly dependent on exports..

Heitkamp, thus, was happy she was able to pass an amendment in the committee on Wednesday to increase access to the Cuban market for American-grown ag products.

Hoeven added that the bill also consolidates several marketing programs under one export umbrella.

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