Farm bill remains in limbo as Senate barters over amendments

WASHINGTON — Senators can't seem to get off the dime, so a $286 billion farm bill remains stalled.

Following a week of sluggish debate, the Senate has yet to consider any of the dozens of farm bill amendments that lawmakers have authored. The political gridlock and a presidential veto threat raise the prospect that Congress could simply punt this year.

"Here we sit," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, conceded Thursday.

Harkin chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, which delivered to the full Senate on Monday a farm bill spanning some 1,600 pages. By Thursday, senators had prepared at least 67 potential amendments, some symbolic and some legislatively essential.

Among the proposed amendments is a long-shot bid to change crop subsidies, including reducing the maximum amount that a two-member farm family can receive from $360,000 to $250,000.

But so far, neither voting nor substantive discussion has taken place. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used a parliamentary maneuver that effectively blocked further amendments. That's forcing Democratic and Republican leaders to negotiate debate procedure, hemmed in by a two-week congressional break that starts Nov. 16.

"It's still tenuous," acknowledged Robert Guenther, senior vice president of the California-based United Fresh Produce Association. "We're concerned."

Much of the maneuvering anticipates future House of Representatives and Senate negotiations. The House passed its version of the farm bill in late July. Following what could prove to be a make-or-break weekend, an agreement could be announced as early as Tuesday on handling the myriad amendments.

"It's a matter of trying to whittle that number down," Guenther said.

The United Fresh Produce Association represents the likes of Sunkist, Del Monte and the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. These specialty crop producers support the Senate's farm bill because of $2 billion in funding offered for fruit and vegetable producers, many of whom are in California, Florida, Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas.

The Senate's bill, notably, includes $1 billion to purchase fruits and vegetables for use in school snacks and meals.

"(It) is a good thing, in that far too long they have been out of the farm program," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

The Bush administration, however, cites the fruit and vegetable purchase provision, among others, in its official statement threatening a farm bill veto. More broadly, the administration opposes what it calls the bill's "budget gimmickry," tax increases and the status-quo approach to subsidies at a time of high crop prices.

"We have to have a fiscally responsible farm bill," acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner told reporters this week.

The Senate's marquee amendment is likely to be one co-authored by Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.

The Lugar-Lautenberg amendment would phase out the "direct payment" crop subsidies estimated to provide $26 billion over the next five years. Lautenberg said the amendment would fix the "antiquated system of giant payments to a handful of farms," but farm-state lawmakers still will have the upper hand in defending the Senate bill.

"It seems to me we must be cautious of what lurks under the banner of reform," Roberts said.