It was reported erroneously in The Post yesterday that a House-passed bill sets a 1,960-acre limit on federally subsidized irrigation water. The correct figure is 960 acres.
The Senate, bowing to a day-long stall by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), agreed last night to a major tightening in the rewrite of the law providing subsidized federal irrigation water to western farmers.
The Energy Committee's revision of the Reclamation Act of 1902 was passed, 49 to 13, after Metzenbaum forced the Republican leadership to accept key changes on acreage limits and the water-pricing formula.
The compromise cut the bill's acreage ownership limit from 2,080 to 1,280 acres per farm, raised the pricing formula interest rate from about 9 percent to 12 percent, added water-conservation requirements and speeded the process for disposal of irrigated land that exceeds acreage limits.
Metzenbaum's slowdown tactics, aimed at derailing a bill he said was not in the public interest, had brought the Senate to a virtual standstill and ignited bitter exchanges.
His pique was directed at the committee's generous rewrite of the 1902 law that governs federal irrigation policy on about 11 million acres in 17 western states.
Unless the law is revised, the Interior Department must comply with a court order to enforce the 1902 statute strictly. About 97 percent of irrigation farmers are in compliance, but strict enforcement would require some of the largest western farmers, now in violation, to give up cheap federal water.
Metzenbaum resorted to time-consuming quorum calls and threatened to call up dozens of amendments after the GOP, led by Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) and James A. McClure (R-Idaho), easily defeated several tightening amendments during two days of debate.
Metzenbaum said he intended to have Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) remove the bill from consideration--which Baker said he wouldn't do--or to get its supporters to accept some of his amendments.
As Metzenbaum's quasi-filibuster dragged on, exasperation mounted. Some senators canceled late afternoon flights and weekend campaign appearances at home. Bitter words were traded.
Majority Whip Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) accused Metzenbaum of "a breach of ethics of this Senate" for the stall. He said Metzenbaum had "violated one of the basic rules of the Senate, which is to be a gentleman."
Metzenbaum said, "I'm not worried about my reputation as a gentleman in opposing this legislation. I don't need the senator from Alaska to tell me how to conduct myself on the floor of the Senate . . . this is bad legislation. It serves only the purposes of a few."
Yesterday was not the first time that the redoubtable 'no-man' had made himself a spoilsport on the Senate floor over bills he declared to be against the public interest.
He stalled natural gas deregulation for a year (1977-1978), knocked out about $5 billion in special interest tax breaks in 1980 and partially blocked repeal of a windfall profits tax on oil last year.
But this time, from Metzenbaum's point of view, it was even easier and better than a filibuster. Under the time agreement on the reclamation bill, he was free to call up as many amendments for as long as he liked without fear of being muzzled.
The vote on the first of his amendments left no doubt about the Senate's feelings. Metzenbaum was beaten, 75 to 7, when he proposed that farmers receiving federal irrigation benefits be required to live on or near their farms, a move he said would deter speculators and absentee landlords from profiting on federal subsidies.
Wallop said that roll call should have made the Senate's view clear and that "I hope that will not be lost on the senator from Ohio."
But Metzenbaum would not budge. He said he intended to stay on the floor offering amendments unless Wallop was interested in some kind of compromise.
"Some of the amendments I would accept are on his issues that Secretary Watt Interior Secretary James G. Watt supports," Metzenbaum said. "I don't know if that means much to the senator from Wyoming."
Apparently it did, for Wallop then agreed to talk compromise. After nearly two hours of closed-door conferencing, they came up with the package of changes that allowed passage of the bill.
The House has passed a rewrite of the 1902 law with considerably different provisions, including an acreage cap of 1,960 acres. Most observers expect a difficult and prolonged House-Senate conference to work out the differences.
But last night's compromise, which exempts thousands of acres from coverage and assures continued subsidies to farmers, was not received well by environmental and social-action groups seeking tough enforcement of the 1902 law.
"Our groups will continue to oppose this legislation," said Brent Blackwelder, a leader of the opposition. "Metzenbaum deserves all the praise in the world for having the guts to hang in there, but this bill wipes out the safeguards that the 1902 law set on residency and it still allows wealthy farmers to get subsidized water."