LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared before Kentucky's most influential agricultural group on Saturday to explain his vote against a proposed new farm bill, saying the legislation had been overtaken by a too-generous food stamp program that overshadows actual farm policy.
The five-term Republican senator, facing a tough re-election campaign in 2014, told a gathering at the Kentucky Farm Bureau's annual meeting that he hopes to eventually support a new five-year farm bill if congressional negotiators can reach an agreement.
The problem with the Senate-passed version that he opposed is that "the farm bill has become a food stamp bill," McConnell said.
McConnell's chief Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, has denounced McConnell's vote against the Senate's farm bill as "shameful."
"He has failed our farmers, and in the process left so many in the lurch," Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, said earlier in the week.
Agricultural and food stamp issues are important in Kentucky, which is mostly rural and has large pockets of poverty.
Kentucky's diversified farm economy, built on livestock and grain production, is expected to yield about $6 billion in total cash receipts this year, easily topping last year's record level of $5.3 billion. Meanwhile, an estimated 1 in 5 Kentuckians receive food stamp benefits.
Those food stamp rolls swelled nationwide as the economy has struggled in recent years, with the stimulus providing higher benefits and many people signing up for the first time. As a result, the program has more than doubled in cost since 2008, now costing almost $80 billion a year.
The GOP-controlled House passed legislation this year that would cut food stamps by $4 billion annually and tighten eligibility requirements. The Senate farm bill would cut a tenth of the House amount, with Democrats and President Barack Obama opposing major cuts.
"In the Senate bill, it just largely became a food stamp bill with production agriculture kind of stuck on as an afterthought," McConnell told reporters on Saturday.
McConnell also voiced support for work requirements for many recipients, saying it could spur more economic productivity. The House version would allow states to put broad new work requirements in place. House and Senate negotiators have been trying to reach a compromise.
"Why would anybody object, if they can be given employment, to being productive?" McConnell said. "At the same time, you may be eligible for some food stamp assistance.
"We need to move in the direction of having a vibrant, productive, expanding economy. And you don't do that by making it excessively easy to be non-productive."
Grimes didn't provide details about what level of funding she would support for the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. She said she hoped the negotiations would produce a comprehensive bill that includes food stamp funding.
McConnell is facing a challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in next year's GOP primary. McConnell, who had big-city roots when he entered the Senate decades ago, has cultivated support from rural Kentucky over the years in becoming the state's longest-tenured senator.
Meanwhile, McConnell told the Farm Bureau crowd that he was optimistic Kentucky tobacco farmers would get their last round of checks as part of the tobacco buyout, despite the looming threat that automatic budget cuts, called a sequester, could reduce the payments.
The last installment is due in 2014 to compensate tobacco farmers and others for the loss of their production quotas when the government's price-support program ended a decade ago. The buyout was paid for by an assessment on cigarette companies.
"I believe there's an overwhelming likelihood that all of the final year of the tobacco buyout will be paid," McConnell said.
He said he couldn't guarantee the amount would be paid in full next year, saying some of the balance might not be paid off until 2015.
McConnell also downplayed the prospects that a comprehensive immigration bill will emerge from Congress.
McConnell said Congress should try to pass portions of immigration legislation that could garner wide support. One such issue should be making improvements to the federal H2A temporary visa worker program. Many Kentucky farmers use the program to hire migrant workers to help produce tobacco or vegetables or work on horse farms.
Many Kentucky farmers have complained that the program is too expensive and complex.
"There may be a shot here to go forward and improve an H2A program," McConnell said.