Farm Bill At Standstill After Vote

The Senate's farm bill would provide funding for research on biofuels beyond corn ethanol.
The Senate's farm bill would provide funding for research on biofuels beyond corn ethanol. (By Jay Laprete -- Bloomberg News)
By Dan Morgan
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 17, 2007

Senate Democrats failed yesterday to break an impasse that has stalled action on a five-year, $286 billion farm bill, increasing the possibility that the legislation could be delayed until next year.

The 55 to 42 vote to end the deadlock fell short of the 60-vote majority needed. Four Republicans, including two facing election challenges next year, joined a solid bloc of Democrats seeking to force Senate consideration of the huge measure.

Democrats vowed to take up the bill next month after Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess. "This is just the first round," said Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "We'll get it done."

But with the bill apparently caught up in pre-election political maneuvering unrelated to agricultural issues -- and in a broader veto struggle with the White House -- the outlook is uncertain.

On Thursday, a group of House Republicans proposed extending the current farm bill for a year, postponing further consideration of the new legislation until after the 2008 election. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) called such a move "premature."

The House passed its version of the bill in July. Peterson said he is still optimistic that a deal on a farm bill can be reached by early next year. The Senate took up the bill Nov. 5, but it quickly became mired in procedural problems.

The immediate cause of the deadlock has been the insistence of Senate Republicans on their right to introduce a series of politically explosive tax and immigration amendments that Democrats deem not relevant. Harkin said yesterday that these include changes in the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax, and a ban on issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

"They want a political hot-button issue they can take into the campaign," Harkin said.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denied that the deadlock is the fault of Republicans. Democratic leaders, he said, are ignoring the Senate's tradition of open debate and are asserting an extraordinary right to pick and choose what amendments will be allowed.

"We all know we're going to pass a farm bill," McConnell said, adding that similar delays occurred in 2002, when Congress passed the current bill. "When the games stopped . . . we passed it in a week," he recalled.

There are, nevertheless, risks for Republicans if they are seen as thwarting legislation that dispenses billions of dollars a year and that reaches into nearly every county in the nation.

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) charged yesterday that "the Republican leadership of the U.S. Senate, with a hand from the White House, have turned their backs on rural America."

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