It took longer than any of the negotiators or stakeholders would have hoped, but at the end of the day, the farm bill coalition held together.
The Senate cleared the conference report reauthorizing agriculture and nutrition programs for five years on a 68-32 vote Tuesday.
Assuming the entire bill makes it to President Barack Obama's desk in one piece-and longtime farm bill observers know even that can't be assured, since the 2008 farm bill showed up at the White House with a chunk missing-the work of Congress is done for this round, and a new farm policy will be in effect for the next five years, providing much-needed certainty for producers.
Conferees on both sides of the aisle praised the product before Monday evening's procedural vote, 72-22, to limit debate on the conference report.
The measure, which scores as costing nearly $1 trillion, would save about $23 billion over the next decade. It avoids the House's deeper cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps. Perhaps even more importantly, it maintains the traditional ties between nutrition programs and farm supports.
Conferees, led by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, touted savings from wiping out the outdated direct payments.
"This farm bill contains the greatest reforms to agricultural programs in decades. We have finally ended direct payment subsidies, which are given to farmers in good times and bad. Instead, we shift to a responsible, risk management approach that only gives farmers assistance when they experience a loss," the Michigan Democrat said. "The bill also ends farm payments to millionaires, addresses a loophole that allows people who aren't farming to get payments, and tightens payment limits with a cap on payments that, for the first time, includes all commodity title programs, including limits on marketing loans."
The farm bill had many of its usual critics, including Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who offered a blistering rebuke in a Monday floor speech.
"How are we supposed to restore the confidence of the American people with this monstrosity? A few weeks ago we crammed down their throats a $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill loaded with wasteful spending. Tomorrow we will wash the omnibus down with another trillion dollars," McCain said. "The only policy that gets bipartisan traction in Congress is Washington's desire to hand out taxpayer money like it is candy."
Even some who backed the bill noted reservations with the final product of the House-Senate conference committee, including the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, who criticized the removal of language drafted with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to reduce crop insurance benefits for wealthy farmers.
"It says something about us as a caring, compassionate nation, that we're going to be there to help families living in our towns and our state when they're struggling to put food on the table. Why was that such an inviting target for some of the House conferees?" asked Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. "There's a lot of money that can be saved in government, but we should be focusing primarily on those who can afford it as opposed to those struggling to get by. I'm going to support this bill, but I wish that we'd been able to preserve the crop insurance provision that Senator Coburn and I sponsored."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., a senior member of the Agriculture Committee and a key conferee on a number of issues including the dairy provisions, renewed criticism of Speaker John. A Boehner over the Ohio Republican's objections on that issue.
"I wish the commonsense dairy policies that were passed twice by the full Senate and supported by Republicans and Democrats, by the chair and by the ranking member, and also by the House Committee on Agriculture had not been ambushed at the last hour," Leahy said. "As a result, we don't have a market stabilization program-something that was proposed by dairy farmers themselves that would have protected taxpayers from the exorbitant costs and would have insulated dairy farmers and consumers from volatile roller-coastering milk prices."
Negotiators scrambled to develop a last-minute alternative to the dairy security measure, and Stabenow conceded to losing sleep hammering out that dispute. When all was said and done, compromise ruled the day.
"No solution is perfect, but we cannot continue to operate with an expired policy that not only does not give our farmers and ranchers the certainty they need to continue to produce the highest quality, lowest cost food supply, which benefits every single American, but where we do not achieve the very savings and reforms that we have been sent here by the American people to achieve," conferee John Hoeven, R-N.D., said.