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Senate boosts food stamps as joblessness rises

The Senate has passed a $124 billion agriculture spending bill that pays to add millions of people to the food stamp rolls as rising numbers of the jobless are forced into the program.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Senate on Tuesday passed a $124.3 billion agriculture spending bill that pays to add millions of people to the food stamp rolls as rising numbers of the jobless are forced into the program.

Money for the federal school lunch program is going up 12 percent as well, while a popular program that gives additional food aid for poor children and pregnant women received a 9 percent increase in funding.

The bill passed by a 80-17 vote.

As the nation's unemployment rate nears 10 percent, a record 34.4 million people — or one in nine Americans — were participating in the food stamp program as of May. That's an increase of 650,000 people from the previous month and up 6 million from the same time last year.

More than two-thirds of the measure, $86 billion, goes for domestic food programs, including $61 billion for food stamps. The legislation provides the money for the program, though the cost is set by how many eligible families participate.

The average monthly food stamp benefit for a family was $295 in April.

The bill is the fourth of the 12 annual spending bills for agencies whose budgets are set by Congress each year. There's little hope Congress will meet the Oct. 1 deadline to complete the bills by the start of the 2010 budget year, although Senate leaders are hoping to avoid yet another "omnibus" appropriations bill that wraps all the remaining spending measures into one giant piece of legislation.

The House passed companion agriculture spending legislation last month. Tuesday's action by the Senate sends the measure into talks between the two chambers to resolve differences.

Milk prices to go higher
In a surprising development, the Senate voted to add $350 million to the measure to lift milk price supports — the amount the government pays for surplus milk products — by an estimated $1.50 per hundredweight, which should inch milk prices higher.

The amendment, by Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., barely prevailed on a 60-37 vote. Sixty votes were required because the amendment broke budget rules.

Sanders said dairy farmers, especially smaller ones, are struggling badly as milk prices have plummeted by more than 40 percent below last year, well below most farmers' production costs.

"Family-based dairy agriculture is on the verge of collapse," Sanders said. "This is not a regional issue. This is a national issue."

The bill also would repeal a controversial ban on poultry products from China, as long as the Agriculture Department agrees to step up inspections of those imports.

China and the United States banned imports of each others' poultry in 2004 following an outbreak of bird flu, though China lifted its ban after a few months. The Chinese now complain that the U.S. has failed to follow through on a pledge to reopen its market.

Last month, the World Trade Organization began a formal investigation of the U.S. ban after China alleged that the U.S. was fundamentally breaking global commerce rules. The United States countered that it still was examining whether Chinese poultry was safe for human consumption.

China has called attention to the poultry ban as part of other trade disputes with the United States, and many U.S. agricultural producers have called for an end to it, saying it could affect their trade with the country.

The House version of the bill would maintain the ban on Chinese poultry as Democrats questioned its safety.

The measure also funds a variety of programs such as agricultural research, efforts to combat destructive pests, crop insurance, food inspection and land conservation programs.

Boosts ‘Food for Peace’ program
And it provides for a $3 billion Food and Drug Administration budget, a 14 percent increase designed to boost staffing for food and drug safety inspections.

Most farm subsidies are funded through a separate multiyear farm bill passed by Congress last year.

The bill also provides a big, almost 40 percent increase to the Food for Peace program, which gives food aid to developing countries, increasing its budget to $1.7 billion.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate rejected, by a 70-27 vote, another attempt by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to support President Barack Obama's attempts to kill wasteful or less efficient programs. McCain sought to eliminate a $24 million program that addresses flooding problems in smaller watersheds. Two-thirds of the money for the program in the bill would go to so-called earmarks requested by members of the pork-dispensing Senate Appropriations Committee.

The White House says earmarks for the program are considerably less cost-effective than other flood control programs.

The bill also finances 296 earmarks — euphemistically called congressionally directed spending — worth $221 million.