Farm bill stalls in Senate

WASHINGTON — Forget about a farm bill, for now.

An utterly stymied Senate on Friday failed to muster the votes needed to consider a $286 billion farm bill, making it much more likely that the package will get punted into 2008.

The delay alarms fruit and vegetable growers, who seek a record increase in federal spending.

Farm-state senators aren't too happy, either.

"It may slip into next year; I don't know," conceded Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, mustered 55 votes to break a filibuster. He needed 60. Partisanship prevailed, as every Democrat voted to proceed and all 42 votes to block the bill came from Republicans.

The 55-42 filibuster vote Friday capped 10 days of inaction, during which time the farm bill remained inert on the Senate floor. Although 260-plus amendments have been drafted, many unrelated to farm policy, senators remain split over substance, process and politics.

The Senate now embarks on a two-week Thanksgiving vacation, during which time farm organizations will pressure GOP lawmakers. If motivated, Harkin insisted, Senate leaders still could solve their problems in early December and start negotiations with the House of Representatives before Christmas.

"We just want them to get on with it," said Jack King, the manager of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "Why wait?"

The Californians have joined with growers in Florida, Michigan, Washington and other specialty-crop states to promote increased spending on fruits and vegetables. A House farm bill approved in late July offers some $1.7 billion for specialty crops.

The Senate proposal offers $2 billion for specialty crops, with about half of the total paying for school snack and lunch purchases. Both the House and Senate legislation would provide four or five times the level of specialty-crop funding included in the current farm bill, which expires this year.

"If we have a continuation of the current farm bill, we have no provisions for half of the crops in the country, the fruits and vegetables," warned Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Well over half of the farm bill's total spending goes toward food-stamp and nutrition programs. Both House and Senate bills largely continue traditional subsidies for crops, including cotton, rice, wheat and corn, though with some modifications.

Many Republicans like the underlying farm bill, which won unanimous approval from the 21-member Senate agriculture committee. Nonetheless, they kept it bottled up Friday out of solidarity with other GOP colleagues who want to offer amendments on hot-button political issues. One potential amendment, for instance, would bar illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses.

Another potential amendment would bar crop subsidies to residents of San Francisco; New Haven, Conn.; and other self-designated "sanctuary" cities that harbor illegal immigrants. Other proposals range from cutting estate taxes to granting firefighters collective bargaining rights.

Senate Democratic leaders want limited amendments, all germane to agriculture. In part, this keeps manageable a bill that already spans some 1,600 pages and avoids amendments primarily designed to force politically awkward votes.

"If you want to offer this on some other bill, on an immigration bill, fine," Harkin said. "But not on the farm bill."

Stalling the farm bill also can serve some political purposes. Stabenow charged Republicans with pursuing a "strategy to block us from achieving anything," while Harkin contended that the White House's Capitol Hill allies want to protect the president from making a politically sensitive veto.

White House officials say the Senate bill is packed with taxes and "budget gimmicks," and they want changes, including stricter limits on which farmers get subsidies. The Senate bill, for instance, prohibits subsidies to farmers with gross annual incomes over $750,000. The White House wants this cut to $200,000.

"To put it simply, I believe our farmers and ranchers deserve and need something better," Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said this week.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., added that "the Senate will pass a farm bill — that is certain — but only after an open and fair debate on the Senate floor."

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