A combination of budget disagreements, pre-recess jitters and partisan policy disputes threw congressional farm-bill writers into disarray yesterday.
At the House Agriculture Committee, despite Democratic reluctance, Republicans were insisting that a bill be reported out, even though they conceded that it was far over budget guidelines and would have to be reworked after this month's recess.
"The problem is that these are policy decisions. We're going to have to go back after the recess and look at all of these programs . . . . None of us is comfortable going home with this farm bill . . . . The bill is terrible," said Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), reflecting an apparently unanimous feeling.
After lengthy back-and-forth, the committee finally broke up last night, agreeing to finish a week after Congress returns to work in September.
The stalemated Senate committee made last-minute efforts to continue work on its bill, after Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) delivered a stern lecture on the Senate floor. But the panel remained sharply divided over costly grain price-support and farm-income subsidy provisions.
In the Senate, heated words were fired around the chamber as Democrats demanded action on their Agriculture Committee's over-budget farm legislation and the Republican leadership denounced them for extravagance.
The discord on both sides of the Hill was underscored by a common theme -- the lawmakers' extreme nervousness about returning home for a monthlong recess without being able to give farmers a clear idea of the terms of the bill that will set federal agriculture policy for the next four years.
"I'm trying to figure out what we tell people at home over the recess," said Rep. Steven Gunderson (R-Wis.). House Agriculture Committee Chairman E (Kika) de la Garza (D-Texas), who advocated finishing the bill after the recess, replied, "Tell them that we have a tentative final agreement."
But others, in both the House and Senate, argued that farmers were entitled to have more details and that both committees ought to work until they could produce measures that were closer to budget rules and that still kept a safety-net under farm income in the slumping agriculture economy.
Although both House and Senate panels acknowledged that their respective bills were over budget, their ability to begin the crucial scaling back was stymied by questions about the allocation for agriculture in the pending budget resolution.
Tentative calculations showed that the House committee needed to cut about $10 billion from its farm bill. The Senate bill, according to Helms, was at least $6 billion over budget -- enough, he said, that he would recommend a presidential veto if the measure went ahead without change.
"I'm still the chairman, like it or lump it," Helms said, blaming Democrats on his committee for "stalling" from the start. "They haven't fooled me for one second. From the first week, what was in progress was a filibuster."
Helms and Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), pursuing a new tack in their criticism of the cost of the pending Senate bill, also charged that the Democrats had turned their back on small family farmers and were catering to a wealthy agricultural elite.
Dole, who on Wednesday backed away from a threat to force a vote on the bill on the Senate floor, attacked Democrats for alleged profligacy and the press for failing to understand agriculture. "Political one-upsmanship is what all this is about," he said.