The legislation is a five year package that includes a variety of agricultural and consumer spending: farm subsidies, but also food stamp money.
“(The)farm bill is now at a standstill on the Senate floor.”Tom Harkin
The House passed its version of the farm bill last summer. Supporters hope the Senate can pass the legislation this week or immediately after the Thanksgiving break. That would give Congress time to get the bill to the President before adjournment in late December.
All that looks uncertain now, as the Senate battles over procedural issues. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin put it this way.
"That forward looking, fiscally responsible farm bill is now at a standstill on the Senate floor because we cannot obtain the necessary cooperation from the Republican leadership," said Harkin.
Harkin and other Democrats say the Republicans have proposed so many farm bill amendments that there isn't time enough to get through them all. Republicans respond it's the Democrats who are holding things up. Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire says Democrats are unfairly limiting the amendment process.
"All members of the Senate, but especially members of the minority, the Republican members of the Senate, have been shut out of the ability to amend this bill," says Gregg. "The essence of the Senate is the ability to amend legislation when it's on the floor."
The disagreement over how much time should be allotted to discuss amendments lead to the proposal to limit debate. The measure takes 60 votes to pass so some Republicans would have to join with Democrats to approve it.
If it's approved, Congress could still get a bill to the President before the end of the year. There the legislation faces more peril.
President Bush has threatened to veto the package. He says Congress has failed to reform a farm subsidy system that he and others say pays out too much money. The President also objects to tax increases contained in both House and Senate bills.
Eric Washburn is with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank started by a group of former Republican and Democratic Senators. Washburn says with the political wrangling the outlook for passing the farm bill in the next month is "gloomy".
"Both sides want to show that they're both in favor of getting a farm bill done and getting relief out to the farm community and putting in place a new regime for farm management and farm programs," says Washburn. "But at the same time looking for opportunities to sort of score political points in what's going to be a hotly contested election year."
He says if the farm bill is delayed into next year, it's possible Congress will simply extend the current farm legislation. That would likely delay consideration of a new bill until after the election.
Minnesota has a powerful voice in the farm bill debate. U.S. Representative Collin Peterson chairs the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson says he has an idea to break the farm bill impasse. He says the first step would be for Congress to agree on a spending number for all the programs in the farm bill.
"That means the food stamp people, conservation people, the fruit and vegetable people, farmers and then figure out what that number is. And if it takes this with the White House, I'd be willing to take an across the board reduction in everything to pay for this, might be a couple percent," says Peterson.
But Peterson says before he can make the proposal to the President the Senate must pass its version of the farm bill. Right now it's unclear when or if that will happen