WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Reformers will need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, not just a majority, to limit farmers to $250,000 a year in crop subsidies or to cut off subsidies to wealthy Americans, senators have agreed.
The requirement accommodates the threat of a filibuster, in which foes talk an amendment to death.
But reformers said on Wednesday the move poses an unfair hurdle. Senators are scheduled to vote on two farm subsidy amendments on Thursday.
An amendment to close loopholes and impose a $250,000 “hard” cap on payments was likely to pass in a close vote. The other amendment would deny crop subsidies to “part-time” farmers with an adjusted gross income above $250,000 a year.
Crop subsides go predominantly to large operators — 8 percent of grain, cotton and soybean growers collect 58 percent of the payments. Small-farm advocates say the payments give big farmers a bankroll to out-bid their neighbors for land and equipment.
Farm law now sets a $360,000 a year limit on crop payments, but it is easily evaded. And people with an adjusted gross income up to $2.5 million are eligible for crop subsidies and land stewardship payments.
“We should not be in the position of needing a super-majority to pass a thoughtful piece of legislation,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat and co-sponsor of the “hard” cap.
The Senate frequently sets a 60-vote “threshold” on items that are controversial or attract fervent opposition. It is a way to short-circuit the time that would be spent in filibuster, where 60 votes are needed to end debate.
“The rules are available to be used by any senator, and they are used,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat. “People can use them for their advantage.”
A Senate aide said that “it basically takes 60 votes to get anything done. Sixty votes is tough when you have 51 Democrats and you have to peel off a few (Republicans).”
Four of the five senators running for the presidential nomination are Democrats. All five support the $250,000 cap.
They were expected to take part in a series of high-profile votes on Thursday, including the farm bill amendments.
Opposition by Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, an outspoken supporter of the current subsidy rules, resulted in the 60-vote rule, said the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Environmental Working Group.
The EWG’s Ken Cook said in an Internet blog that Senate Democrats had put “reform at risk and gave the subsidy lobby yet another procedural advantage” by setting the 60-vote requirement.
Along with the $250,000 cap, the amendment sponsored by Dorgan and Iowa Republican Charles Grassley would close loopholes. It would track payments to individuals, ban indirect receipt of subsidies, eliminate commodity certificates to exceed payment limits and requires at least 1,000 hours of labor and management” in order for people to qualify for subsidies.
Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar’s amendment would set an AGI limit of $250,000 for part-time farmers and $750,000 for “full-time” farmers who earn more than 66 percent of their money on the farm.
Reporting by Charles Abbott; editing by Jim Marshall