Republican Senate candidate Kurt Bills said Wednesday he would have voted against the farm bill passed by the U.S. Senate in June, striking a major contrast with Democratic incumbent Amy Klobuchar as the two chased rural votes at an annual southwestern Minnesota agriculture trade show.
The Senate bill spends about $500 billion over five years. It cuts farm subsidies and land conservation spending by about $2 billion a year, but largely protects sugar growers and some 46 million food stamp beneficiaries. House conservatives want cuts to food stamp programs among other trims.
Klobuchar voted for the bill, saying it's vital to pass this year to get aid to drought-stricken farmers and to shield the farm economy from larger economic uncertainty. She and Bills shared a stage for the first time in this year's Senate campaign at FarmFest near Redwood Falls, where they and Independence Party candidate Glen Menze discussed agriculture and rural issues.
Bills said he would support a smaller farm bill, perhaps half the size of the Senate's, if he could be assured its subsidies were only going to middle- and low-income farmers.
"I know it's tough to always be the guy who says no," said Bills, a state representative and high school teacher from Rosemount who has put his call for big federal spending cuts at the center of his campaign. "The voices of those who are getting re-elected are the ones who are saying, 'Spend it all.' That's what can't keep happening."
Klobuchar pointed out several Republicans from Midwestern states did support the farm bill, including Republicans from North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. It passed on a 64-35, bipartisan vote. She also said it would cut the deficit by nearly $23 billion in the next 10 years while preserving a program that benefits sugar growers.
"That alone means about 20,000 jobs in the Red River Valley," Klobuchar said.
In the absence of a vote on the larger bill, the House last week passed a $334 million bill to give disaster aid to farmers hit hard by the drought. Bills said he supports that measure, saying Congress should strive to vote separately on smaller chunks of spending rather than the "omnibus" approach of the farm bill, where billions in separate projects are bundled together.
Klobuchar called that House vote "political games," saying it was a short-term solution rather than the long-term investments in the larger farm bill.
Menze compared Republicans and Democrats in Washington to a divorced couple, saying that if voters elected him he'd help cut through the polarized political climate. "One is more on the spend side, one is more on the cuts side. I'm more in between — spending should be focused on programs that get the economy going," said Menze, who has made several unsuccessful runs for the U.S. House as a Republican.
Klobuchar was quick to tout her own work with Republican colleagues, mentioning in the space of 90 minutes the names of eight Republican colleagues with whom she's worked on various measures. She mentioned no fellow Democrats.
The U.S. Senate "is not 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'" Klobuchar said, citing the classic Jimmy Stewart movie where a lone senator successfully takes on a corrupt system. "It's standing up and working with people you don't agree with on everything, to get things done."
While Klobuchar stressed her accomplishments and demonstrated a firm grasp of policy, Bills repeatedly underlined his experience teaching economics to high school students as he warned of the danger of debt and deficits.
"The mission is to stop the debt," Bills said. "We can't be everything to everyone. When you try to fulfill every want, you won't have the resources to fulfill what you need."
The FarmFest forum did not stray from agricultural and rural issues. So far, Klobuchar and Bills have only one general debate scheduled, at the State Fair. Bills earlier this week called for more, saying he'd like up to 20 but would settle for five or 10. Klobuchar said Wednesday that she was willing to appear at more debates, but wouldn't say how many.