Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., speaks with reporters on the farm bill following a closed door luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Senate passes farm bill, setting up clash on food stamps

June 28, 2018 - 6:25 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Thursday passed a bill that makes modest modifications to existing farm programs while largely avoiding changes to food stamps, setting up a showdown with the House.

The bill passed 86-11.

The legislation renews farm programs such as crop insurance and land conservation. Farm programs are set to expire Sept. 30 unless Congress acts.

Work on the legislation comes at a time when farmers are facing low prices and a potential trade war that could depress commodities prices further.

"We are one step closer to providing farmers and ranchers a Farm Bill with the certainty and predictability they deserve," said Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "I am proud we have a strong, budget-neutral farm bill with broad support."

GOP aides said the farm bill is expected to go to conference, where Senate and House leadership will try to reconcile their differences. On the food stamp front, the two sides are likely to clash.

The House bill tightens work requirements for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without children are required to work 20 hours a week to maintain their benefits. The bill raises the top age of recipients subject to work requirements from 49 to 59 and requires parents with children older than 6 to work or participate in job training.

Government auditors estimate that in 10 years, the SNAP caseload would shrink by about 1.2 million people in an average month if the bill becomes law.

Those changes are consistent with the Trump administration's priorities. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to enforce existing work requirements and review all programs, waivers and exemptions.

The House measure also limits circumstances under which families who qualify for other poverty programs can automatically be eligible for SNAP. It earmarks $1 billion to expand work training programs.

The Senate version aims to reduce fraud in SNAP but doesn't cut funding from the program, which helps feed more than 40 million people across the United States.

"We improve the SNAP program by providing integrity," Roberts said prior to the vote. "By cutting bonuses, modernizing the verification process, we increase accountability in employment and training programs, we put SNAP participants on the path to employment."

After the bill's passage, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, congratulated his counterparts in the Senate on a "hard-won victory" and said he looks forward to "working together to send a strong new farm bill to the president's desk."

Passage of the measure was delayed by a battle over an amendment from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., barring U.S. taxpayer funds from being spent on businesses owned by the Cuban military. The Senate adopted Rubio's amendment Thursday.

"American taxpayer dollars should never go into the pocket of the Cuban regime," Rubio said.

The Senate bill also includes a provision from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that would legalize the production of industrial hemp. The commodity is generally barred because it is related to marijuana, even though it contains little of that drug's key psychoactive ingredient, THC. McConnell secured a hemp pilot program in the most recent farm bill in 2014. He views the crop as a good replacement for tobacco, which is grown in his home state.

"Our farm families and those across rural America face a lot of uncertainty: natural disasters, from droughts to floods, unstable world markets and falling commodity prices," McConnell said. "The farmers that feed and support this country are counting on us to provide the predictability and certainty of a long-term farm bill."

The Senate rejected an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would have eliminated waivers states are permitted to issue and required state agencies to operate work activation programs.

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