WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to table an amendment to the federal farm bill that would have phased out a financial support system for sugar.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Minnesota Democrats, were among those who opted not to act on a proposal to reform the sugar program. Through import restrictions, price guarantees and loans, the program essentially ensures profits to farmers in Minnesota's huge sugar beet industry.
The vote to table the amendment passed 50-46, with Democrats and Republicans lining up on both sides.
Critics, including conservative and liberal economists, say the program forces American consumers and food and beverage businesses to pay billions of dollars more per year for sugar than they would without the supports. This, critics, say, drives food and beverage production jobs from the United States to foreign countries where price controls are not as significant.
Supporters say the sugar program does not require direct payments from taxpayers, ensures a stable sugar supply at affordable prices and provides tens of thousands of farming and refining jobs that add billions of dollars to the national economy. That is especially true in Minnesota, which leads the country in sugar beet production.
"The sugar beet industry supports good jobs in the Red River Valley and is one of the major foundations of Minnesota's strong rural economy," Klobuchar said in a statement Wednesday. "That is why I voted to table the amendment to eliminate the sugar program."
Franken said in a news release that he "successfully fought to protect the federal sugar program."
"The U.S. sugar program supports thousands of Minnesota jobs and brings millions of dollars into communities all over the state," Franken said. "I'm very pleased that we were able to save the sugar program with today's vote."
The battle over the sugar program has become a ritual in the passage of federal farm bills, which are approved every five years. Sugar groups spent millions lobbying for the program in the first quarter of 2012, government records show.
American Crystal Sugar Co., a farmers cooperative in Moorhead, Minn., led the way, spending $951,000. The food and beverage industries spent more than $1 million lobbying against the sugar program in the first quarter.
In 2011, Crystal Sugar also donated more than $1 million to candidates for the House and Senate, including many members of the agriculture committees that oversee the farm bill. Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has received more than $10,000 in donations to her 2012 reelection campaign from Crystal Sugar officers and farmers.
The Coalition for Sugar Reform pointed out in a statement that the sugar program has received no hearings, testimony or debate in either the Senate Agriculture Committee or on the Senate floor.
The American Sugar Alliance, which represents sugar growers and refiners, was pleased with the Senate action.
"Today's vote to reject an amendment that would have repealed U.S. sugar policy is great news for taxpayers and grocery shoppers, as well as the country's food security," an alliance statement said.
Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752