Senate panel OKs farm bill, but House wants work provisions

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel approved a modest, bipartisan rewrite of federal farm and nutrition programs on Wednesday, sidestepping a fight for now but setting up a clash with House Republicans intent on beefing up work requirements for food stamps.

The legislation, approved by a bipartisan 20-1 vote, would renew farm safety-net programs such as subsidies for crop insurance, farm credit, and land conservation. It also would extend the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, widely known as food stamps, which helps feed more than 40 million people.

The panel's approval comes as farm country is struggling with low prices and a potential trade war that could depress farm commodities prices further.

The legislation was drafted along traditionally bipartisan lines to ease its passage through the closely divided Senate, where Democrats have significant influence over most legislation.

Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., worked closely with top panel Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan to produce the legislation, which aims to reduce fraud in the food stamp program but avoids controversial efforts to impose stricter work requirements and provisions to restrict eligibility.

"We've put our political differences aside," Stabenow said.

The House measure, which failed last month because of an intra-GOP battle over immigration, promises greater job training opportunities for recipients of food stamps, a top priority for House leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan. Democrats say the House measure is poorly designed and would drive 2 million people off of the program. A re-vote is likely in coming weeks.

The current food and farm bill expires at the end of September and Roberts acknowledged that enacting the legislation this year will be difficult. A short-term extension is a likely option.

"To those who say passing a farm bill in this environment is a daunting task, I say together we can get it done," Roberts said. "We must embrace the attitude of our producers — optimism and ingenuity."

The measure includes legislation by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that would legalize the production of industrial hemp, which is generally barred because hemp is related to marijuana, even though it contains little of that drug's key psychoactive ingredient, known as THC. McConnell secured a hemp pilot program in the most recent farm bill in 2014 and views the crop as a good replacement for tobacco.

McConnell hopes to bring the measure to the Senate floor before the July 4 recess.

The measure would limit subsidy payments to farmers earning less than $700,000, down from $900,000. It seeks to block states from gaming the food stamp program to win additional funding, and reauthorizes two subsidy programs that form the backbone of the farm safety net.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, was the sole "nay" vote. He objected to the measure's hemp provision, saying it should have been handled within the Judiciary Committee that he chairs. He also wants to tighten eligibility standards for farm subsidies to target them to working farmers — closing a loophole that allows family members who do not work on farm to claim them as well.

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