The Senate passed the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007 by a 79-14 vote, ending months of contentious debate and behind-the-scenes parliamentary maneuvering over the $286-billion, five-year legislation.

An obviously relieved Sen. Tom Harkin, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman who shepherded the bill through his committee and nearly five weeks of floor debate, called the farm bill “good legislation” that would provide meaningful reforms in a number of areas.

“This is a great, great vote,” said Harkin. “It affirms the hard work the members and the staff of this committee have invested in this farm bill in weeks and months of hearings and negotiations.”

The bill quickly came under fire from environmental groups and the Bush administration that said the legislation did not do enough to limit payments “to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm organization, commended the Senate for passing the bill and putting farmers one step closer to being able to make important spring planting decisions.

“This legislation contains important provisions for all sectors of agriculture, including expanded marketing programs to encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables, incentives for beginning farmers and ranchers and provisions to promote the production of home-grown renewable fuels,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman.

“The bill also meets the needs of more of America’s farmers by providing new funding for specialty crop research, conservation and pest and disease programs and benefits all Americans with important programs for nutrition, conservation, energy security and support for rural communities.”

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee and one of the principal authors of the legislation, said the farm bill takes major steps toward commodity title reform by eliminating the three-entity rule and reducing farm income limits for payment eligibility.

The bill also increases target prices and loan rates for wheat, soybeans and barley and provides additional funding for conservation, rural development, energy and nutrition programs.

“This farm bill received more votes than any other farm bill since 1973,” Conrad told the Senate. “And that’s without the four presidential candidates who all would have voted for it if they had been here.”

But environmental groups said Conrad and other Midwest senators led the fight against the “true” payment limit reform they said was needed to provide more funding for rural development, conservation and nutrition programs.

“The southern senators such as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas may have argued their case publicly,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “But Sen. Conrad actually led the fight against the Dorgan-Grassley amendment, which would have provided real reform of the subsidy payments.”

Cook and spokesmen for other environmental groups accused the Senate of “squandering a golden opportunity to reform U.S. farm policy, cut excessive subsidies, and strengthen vital programs to help farmers clean up the environment and improve public health.”

Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner issued a statement criticizing the Senate farm bill for failing to reform payment limits and raising taxes minutes after the completion of the vote.

“Farmers and ranchers face enormous uncertainties and deserve a safety net, and I am a firm believer in federal support of agriculture,” he said. “Yet, the farm bill just passed by the Senate fails to strengthen the safety net and increases taxes to generate $15 billion in revenue used to grow the size and scope of government.

“The bill further increases price supports and continues to send farm subsidies to people who are among the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. The Senate-passed farm bill does not represent fiscal stewardship and lacks farm program reform.”

Calling the Senate bill fundamentally flawed, Conner said unless the House and Senate can craft a conference report that contains real reform, “we are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before.”

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