By MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) - The last time Congress passed a farm bill, Democrats had control of the House and the food stamp program was about half the size it is today.
That was five years ago.
Conservatives calling for an overhaul of the domestic food aid program will try to trim the nation's nearly $80 billion grocery bill when the House weighs in on farm legislation in a few weeks. The Senate overwhelmingly voted Monday to expand subsidies for crop insurance and make small cuts to food stamps in a five-year, half-trillion dollar measure. But passage in the House isn't expected to be so easy - or so bipartisan.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Monday that his chamber will take up its version of the farm bill later this month. He made clear his own dislike for generous farm subsidies included in the bill, saying his "concerns about our country's farm programs are well-known." But Boehner acknowledged that the rest of the chamber might not agree with him.
"If you have ideas on how to make the bill better, bring them forward," Boehner said in a statement directed to his colleagues. "Let's have the debate, and let's vote on them."
Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation cost almost $100 billion annually and expand some subsidies while eliminating others. The Senate version would end up saving about $2.4 billion a year on the farm and nutrition programs, including across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year, while the House version would save about $4 billion a year.
House consideration will come after more than a year's delay. The Senate passed a similar version of its farm bill last year, but the House declined to take it up during an election year amid conflict over the amount to cut from food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. One in seven Americans now uses the program.
The Senate bill would cut the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by about $400 million a year, or half a percent, and Senate Democrats have been reluctant to cut more. The farm bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee last month would cut the program by $2 billion a year, or a little more than 3 percent, and make it more difficult for some people to qualify.
In his statement Monday, Boehner signaled support for the House bill's level of food stamp cuts, saying they are changes that "both parties know are necessary." Other Republicans are expected to offer amendments to expand the cuts, setting up a potentially even more difficult resolution with the Senate version. At the same time, Democrats are expected to try and eliminate the cuts.
Food stamps were added to the farm bill decades ago to gain urban votes for the rural measure, which sets policy for farm subsidies, programs to protect environmentally sensitive land and other rural development projects. But with the program's exponential growth during the recent economic downturn, food stamps are now making passage harder.
"I expect it to come from all directions," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said last month, acknowledging the complications of moving the bill through his chamber.
On the Senate floor, senators rejected amendments on food stamp cuts, preserving the $400 million annual decrease. The bill's farm-state supporters also fended off efforts to cut sugar, tobacco and other farm supports.
Senators looking to pare back subsidies did win one victory in the Senate, an amendment to reduce the government's share of crop insurance premiums for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said their amendment would affect about 20,000 farmers.
Currently the government pays for an average 62 percent of crop insurance premiums and also subsidizes the companies that sell the insurance. The overall bill expands crop insurance for many crops and also creates a program to compensate farmers for smaller, or "shallow," revenue losses before the paid insurance kicks in.
The crop insurance expansion is likely to benefit Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, who use crop insurance more than other farmers. The bill would also boost subsidies for Southern rice and peanut farmers, lowering the threshold for those farms to receive government help.
The help for rice and peanuts was not in last year's bill but was added this year after the agriculture panel gained a new top Republican, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. Critics, including the former top Republican on the committee, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, said the new policy could guarantee that the rice and peanut farmers' profits are average or above average.
The House has similar provisions expanding crop insurance and rice and peanut subsidies. Farm-state lawmakers say the expanded help for those farmers is necessary because they have traditionally relied on a $5 billion annual subsidy called direct payments that is eliminated in both bills.
Though the issue didn't come up during the Senate debate, dairy programs could be contentious on the House floor. Both the Senate and House bills would overhaul dairy policy by creating a new insurance program for dairy producers, eliminating other dairy subsidies and price supports. The new policy includes a market stabilization program that could dictate production cuts when oversupply drives down prices.
Food companies that sell dairy products have said that market stabilization program could drive up milk prices, and Boehner last year called it "Soviet-style." He reiterated those concerns in his statement Monday, saying he will support an amendment on the floor to challenge the proposed policy.