Story highlights

The measure, estimated to cut the deficit by almost $24 billion, passes in 64-35 vote

Taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance to farmers in need would replace direct payments

Move signals shift to "risk management," Agriculture Committee chairwoman says

Bill merely axes one subsidy program to "invent a new one," Sen. John McCain says

Washington CNN —  

Senators approved a giant farm bill Thursday that is estimated to cut the deficit by almost $24 billion, largely by ending direct payments to farmers and replacing them with taxpayer- subsidized crop insurance to assist farmers in need.

Passage of the bill, by a vote of 64-35, was a rare agreement in a chamber that has been fractured by partisan gridlock over much of this session.

Most of the bill’s savings are achieved through changes to crop assistance programs that have been in place in one form or another since the Great Depression.

“We eliminated four different agriculture subsidies and instead have moved to risk management so we’ll support farmers and ranchers when there’s a loss, where there’s a weather loss, it’s a price loss, through crop insurance, through other things where the farmer has some skin in the game,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwomen Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan.

Not everyone agreed this was the best way to reform these agriculture programs.

“Unfortunately, it seems that Congress’ idea of farm bill reform is to eliminate one subsidy program only to invent a new one to take its place,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

The bill also saves $4.5 billion by making changes to the food stamp program. Known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, these benefits, which were used by almost 50 million people last year, make up the bulk of the overall cost of the bill.

“The Senate is getting back to operating the way it traditionally does,” said a satisfied Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as the chamber was wrapping up votes on scores of amendments to the bill. Republicans have blocked many bills this session partly because they’ve been denied by the Democratic majority the ability to vote on amendments.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, seemed to agree. “The spirit on the Senate floor was good,” he said, because “everyone can feel we’re accomplishing something.”

The bill still needs to be considered by the House, and it’s unclear when that will happen.