U.S. Senate rejects end of federal sugar program

WASHINGTON — Louisiana’s $3.5 billion sugarcane and sugar mill industries could breathe a sigh of relief Wednesday after an effort to effectively end the federal sugar program was defeated on the Senate floor.

The nearly $1 trillion Senate farm bill being debated this week keeps the federal sugar program intact and provides the option for price-control insurance for southwestern Louisiana rice farms that was lacking in last year’s version of the bill.

But a proposed amendment by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to end the federal import restrictions on sugar was defeated Wednesday on a 45 to 54 vote with both U.S. senators from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, in opposition.

“The amendment would effectively kill America’s no-cost sugar program,” Landrieu said, noting that Louisiana has 427,000 acres of sugarcane in 22 parishes and adding that the state’s sugar mills produced a record 1.6 tons of raw sugar last year.

Shaheen and Toomey argued the program prevents a free market and increases costs for consumers.

“What we have here is a sweet deal for sugar growers and a bad deal for consumers,” Shaheen said.

Landrieu countered that sugar costs in the U.S. are still 14 percent lower than the world average and that the sugar program maybe affects the cost of a candy bar by a “penny or two.”

While the House farm bill proposal also maintains the sugar program, a tougher fight to keep it is expected in that chamber where a simple majority vote is needed for amendments. The Senate is debating amendments on a 60-vote threshold.

Vitter said the Senate farm bill is much better than last year’s version, which was passed by the Senate but died in the House for a lack of action during the so-called “fiscal cliff” fight at the end of the year.

“It deals with a lot of Louisiana crops in a lot fairer way,” Vitter said of the Senate bill.

But Vitter said he is undecided on whether he will support the farm bill because of what he calls over-the-top spending for food stamps. However, he said it is “not necessarily” a deal breaker.

The U.S. Senate bill saves $17.8 billion over 10 years — or nearly $24 billion if the federal sequester budget cuts are maintained, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The U.S. House bill assume the cuts will stay in place and cuts $40 billion over 10 years, with more than $20 billion of the cuts coming from food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Senate bill cuts food stamps by more than $4 billion.

Vitter said he will fight for amendments to reform and cut costs for food stamps on the Senate bill.

He successfully had an amendment added Wednesday that would ban food stamp eligibility for convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles.