WASHINGTON - The Senate passed a $124.3 billion agriculture spending bill yesterday that would pay to add millions of people to the food-stamp rolls as rising numbers of jobless Americans are forced into the program.
Money for the federal school-lunch program would go up 12 percent as well, and a popular program that gives additional food aid for poor children and pregnant women would receive a 9 percent increase in funding.
The bill passed, 80-17. All Philadelphia-area senators voted for it.
As the nation's unemployment rate nears 10 percent, a record 34.4 million people - one in nine Americans - were participating in the food-stamp program as of May. That is up 650,000 people from April, and up 6 million from the same time last year.
More than two-thirds of the spending measure, $86 billion, goes for domestic food programs, including $61 billion for food stamps. The legislation provides the money for the program, though the cost is set by how many eligible families participate.
The average monthly food-stamp benefit for a family was $295 in April.
The bill is the fourth of the 12 annual spending bills for agencies whose budgets are set by Congress each year. There is little hope Congress will meet the Oct. 1 deadline to complete the bills by the start of the 2010 budget year, though Senate leaders hope to avoid another "omnibus" bill that wraps all the remaining spending measures into one giant piece of legislation.
The House passed companion agriculture spending legislation last month. Yesterday's Senate action sends the measure into talks between the two chambers to resolve differences.
In a surprising development, the Senate voted to add $350 million to the bill to lift milk price supports - the amount the government pays for surplus milk products - by an estimated $1.50 per hundredweight, which should inch milk prices higher.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) said dairy farmers were struggling badly as milk prices have plummeted by more than 40 percent below last year, well below most farmers' production costs.