WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Senate, forging an unusual alliance between free-market Republicans and liberal Democrats from urban states, yesterday adopted a sweeping rewrite of farm policy that would phase out most payments to farmers by the year 2002.
Touted as a "freedom to farm" bill that would liberate farmers from planting crops according to federal government dictate, the measure passed in a 64-32 vote that ended several days of debate and compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, a Republican presidential contender long interested in farm issues, called the reforms "really a historic change the biggest since the 1930s." He challenged President Clinton to declare his support for the bill this weekend during a campaign trip to Iowa.
Republicans say the overhaul would cut farm spending 20 percent over seven years. Taxpayers now pay farmers roughly $11 billion yearly in "deficiency payments" -- subsidies that prop up market prices for certain farm commodities when they fall below farmers' costs of production.
Proponents declared the bill would wean farmers off costly government subsidies and ready them for participation in a booming world market for food. But farm-state Democrats opposed the legislation, calling it a welfare bill that would disburse payments to farmers irrespective of need for seven years and then strip them of all protection from the whims of weather and world markets.
"The freedom-to-farm proposal will take hundreds of thousands of farmers over the cliff," warned North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad. "This is a radical change in farm policy."
After days of bipartisan huddling, senators favoring an end to farm subsidies crafted a bill that included fixed but declining payments to farmers over the next seven years. The bipartisan compromise also included the expansion of a program to remove environmentally sensitive lands from cultivation and a continuation of food stamps and other nutrition programs, which were key to many Democrats' support of the bill.
An earlier version of the Senate bill sparked a veto threat from the Clinton administration, and it was unclear whether the president would sign the final Senate bill. The bill includes some changes that the administration wanted, including a $300 million, three-year mandatory fund for rural water and sewer projects.
But the bill must still be passed by the House, and defiant House lawmakers are readying a measure similar to the Senate bill that the administration threatened to veto.
Senators rejected proposals to phase out in two and five years, respectively, programs that set limits on the production of peanuts and sugar. Both programs long have been the targets of criticism, and both were subject to minor reforms in the Senate bill passed yesterday.
But the most radical restructuring took place in the centerpiece of the farm bill: subsidies for those who grow cotton, feed grain and wheat. Over a seven-year period, farmers who have cultivated these crops in the past would receive fixed but declining payments, regardless of whether they continue to plant fields as they have in the past.
Farm-state Democrats charged that the Republican plan, by giving the highest payments to the most successful farmers, would further decrease the ranks of smaller farms.
They also charged that the formula of fixed-but-declining payments was designed to buy support for an end to subsidies with payments that are unconditional for the next seven years.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, led an unsuccessful effort to block the payment of such subsidies to farmers who decide not to plant fields at all.