WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a $286 billion farm bill Friday that remains a work in progress.
Following months of delay and a stop-and-start debate, the Senate approved the 1,360-page package, 79-14. Now, the Senate must reconcile its bill with the one the House passed in July.
Senators sought to punctuate the farm bill with big, fat exclamation points. The chairman of the Senate, Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, called it "a good bill for rural America and for everyone who eats food in America."
But in truth, many question marks linger.
Q. A 79-14 vote is pretty overwhelming. Is it smooth sailing from here?
A. No. While the Senate vote was the largest for any farm bill since 1973, it still faces White House resistance. Congressional leaders already concede they may extend current farm policy for a few months in order to finish negotiations on the new bill.
"Unless there is substantial change, we are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before the Senate passed this bill," Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner said Friday.
Q. Politically, who's won so far?
A. The agricultural status quo, big time. Self-styled reformers failed in every single one of their efforts to modify the Senate farm bill.
An amendment to cut by 30 percent the maximum payments a farming couple could receive fell short by a four-vote margin. An amendment strictly banning subsidies to full-time farmers making more than $750,000 a year fell 12 votes short. An amendment cutting out a special $15 million-a-year program for asparagus producers failed. And so on.
Lawmakers stacked the deck against the so-called reform amendments by requiring the potentially most popular among them to reach an unusually high threshold of 60 votes instead of the usual 50-vote majority.
"The Democratic leaders of Congress have come down at every turn on the side of subsidized agriculture," said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group, adding that "this whole thing was rigged to benefit the subsidy lobby."
Q. What does the White House want to change?
A. Taxes, trade, subsidies and what it calls gimmicks.
In threatening a presidential veto, the Bush administration contends both House and Senate bills raise taxes, distort free trade, rely on budget gimmicks and thwart needed reforms. For instance, Bush administration officials want subsidies to go only to farmers making less than $200,000 a year.
The Senate votes showed the administration's stated goal is politically unrealistic, but it's a starting point for negotiations that bear watching.
"Get the fiscal side of this right," Conner urged Friday, "and take the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans off of the taxpayer dole."
Q. So crop subsidies remain the same in this bill?
A. Pretty much. Like its House counterpart, the Senate bill largely retains the current array of payments and subsidies benefiting cotton, rice, wheat, corn and other commodities. Those who proposed phasing out the direct payment subsidies and replacing them with a program similar to crop insurance were trounced by a 58-37 margin.
The Senate does allow farmers receiving subsidies to choose an alternative, with $15-per-acre payments when crop prices fall below certain levels. Rice and upland cotton farmers would probably retain current subsidies while feed grain farmers might benefit by switching to the new payments, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Q. Isn't $286 billion an awful lot of money just for farmers?
A. Farm bills aren't just for farmers anymore.
Food stamps and nutrition programs account for about two-thirds of the total spending over five years. Traditional crop subsidies account for only about 12 percent of the total spending.
Some of the nutrition program benefits spread in several directions. The Senate bill, for instance, includes money for fruits and vegetables to be purchased for school snack and lunch programs in all 50 states.
Q. I didn't think fruits and vegetables were subsidized; how did they get into the farm bill?
A. Political teamwork and persistence.
Depending on how the money is counted, the Senate farm bill includes between $2.2 billion and $2.5 billion for fruits and vegetables. This is four or five times the amount provided through the last farm bill written in 2002.
This specialty crop funding isn't tied to acres or prices. Instead, it comes through programs like block grants to states and additional research. Trade groups like the Western Growers Association and the United Fresh Produce Association began a united lobbying effort over a year ago on behalf of specialty crops, and the alliance of 120-plus organizations paid off.
Q. Let's see; 79 senators voted for the bill and 14 voted against it. Sounds like some senators missed the vote?
A. Yes. Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd all had other business to attend to, in Iowa.