The final compromise bill would get rid of controversial subsidies known as direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. But most of that program's $4.5 billion annual cost was redirected into new, more politically defensible subsidies that would kick in when a farmer has losses. The food stamp program was cut about 1 percent; the House had pushed for five times that much.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Monday that she and her House counterpart, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., tried to craft a bill that would work for all regions of the country, "from traditional row crops, to specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, to livestock, to organics, to local food systems."
Those incentives scattered throughout the bill—a boost for crop insurance popular in the Midwest and higher subsidies for Southern rice and peanut farmers, for example—helped the bill pass easily in the House last week, 251-166. House leaders who had objected to the legislation since 2011 softened their disapproval as they sought to put the long-stalled bill behind them. Leaders in both parties also have hoped to bolster rural candidates in this year's midterm elections.
The final savings in the food stamp program, $800 million a year, would come from cracking down on some states that seek to boost individual food stamp benefits by giving people small amounts of federal heating assistance that they don't need. That heating assistance, sometimes as low as $1 per person, triggers higher benefits, and some critics see that practice as circumventing the law. The compromise bill would require states to give individual recipients at least $20 in heating assistance before a higher food stamp benefit could kick in.
(Read more: Farm bill deal would cut food stamps by 1%)
Some Democrats still objected to the cuts, even though they are much lower than what the House had sought. The Senate-passed farm bill had a $400 million annual cut to food stamps.
"This bill will result in less food on the table for children, seniors and veterans who deserve better from this Congress, while corporations continue to receive guaranteed federal handouts," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said. "I cannot vote for it."