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Bipartisan support expected to carry nearly $100-billion-a-year farm bill through Senate

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WASHINGTON - Support from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate is expected to overcome liberal as well as conservative criticism of a massive five-year farm bill that spends nearly $100 billion a year on food stamps and crop subsidies.

"The Senate has twice passed the farm bill with overwhelming bipartisan support," said Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. "I have no doubt we'll do it again."

After years of setbacks, the bill cleared its biggest hurdle Wednesday when the House approved the measure, 251-166. While 63 Republicans opposed the bill, 89 Democrats supported it, bolstered by cuts to the food stamp program that were lower than first sought.

Conservatives had sought to overhaul the food stamp program, which has ballooned to $80 billion a year. But they ultimately lost out as the Senate balked and the White House threatened to veto a House plan to cut 5 per cent from the program.

The final bill has $800 million, or 1 per cent, in annual cuts to food stamps. The White House has said President Barack Obama will sign the bill with that level of trimming.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., called the compromise a "miracle." The Senate is expected to vote on the bill in the next week.

In the Senate as in the House, some liberal critics say the food stamp cuts are too deep and some conservatives say the cuts are too modest.

"This bill will result in less food on the table for children, seniors and veterans who deserve better from this Congress while corporations continue to receive guaranteed federal handouts," said Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "I cannot vote for it on the Senate floor."

The legislation would continue to heavily subsidize major crops for the nation's farmers while eliminating some subsidies and shifting them toward more politically defensible insurance programs.

The final savings in the food stamp program would come from cracking down on some states that seek to boost individual food stamp benefits by giving people small amounts of federal heating assistance that they don't need. That heating assistance, sometimes as low as $1 per person, triggers higher benefits, and some critics see that practice as circumventing the law. The compromise bill would require states to give individual recipients at least $20 in heating assistance before a higher food stamp benefit could kick in.

To move the bill, Lucas and Stabenow found ways to bring many potential naysayers on board. They spent more than two years crafting the bill to appeal to members from all regions of the country. They included a boost in money for crop insurance popular in the Midwest; higher rice and peanut subsidies for Southern farmers; and renewal of federal land payments for Western states.

For those seeking reform of farm programs, the legislation would eliminate a $4.5 billion-a-year farm subsidy called direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. But the bill nonetheless would continue to heavily subsidize major crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton — while shifting many of those subsidies toward the insurance programs. That means farmers would have to incur losses before they could get a payout.

Some senators have said the bill doesn't have enough reform of farm programs. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who was the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee when Stabenow first started writing the bill, said the bill doesn't do enough to save money on either subsidies or food stamps.

"Unfortunately, U.S. taxpayers deserve better than this conference report," Roberts said in a floor speech this week.

The bill would save around $1.65 billion annually, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The amount was less than the $2.3 billion annual savings the agriculture committees originally projected for the bill.

An aide to Lucas said the difference was due to how the CBO calculated budget savings from recent automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration.

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