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Farm bill showdown set for Friday

If you've never watched the Senate in action on C-SPAN2, Friday would be a good day. You'll be able to watch to see if the Senate reaches 60 votes needed for cloture, which would limit debate on the farm bill and bar amendments not relevant to the bill.

After nine days of partisan gridlock over the number of amendments that would be debated, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) said he hoped the Republican members of the Agriculture Committee would join the Democrats in ending the impasse.

Yesterday, Harkin offered to accept five Republican amendments to the farm bill, and each offer was rejected by his committee's ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). Each time Chambliss objected.

"I think it's very clear who's stopping this bill," Harkin said. "There almost seems to be a deliberate attempt to stall the bill."

"The farm bill is far too important to allow the Republican leadership and the White House to hold it up," he said.

If that cloture vote fails, Harkin said there would probably be another cloture vote when the Senate returns from its Thanksgiving break.

Harkin said he still believes the bill could be finished by the end of this year if the Senate cuts off debate tomorrow. Even if cloture is approved, Senate rules allow 30 more hours of debate and Harkin said 20 to 25 amendments could be offered. The bill could be finished on the second day after returning from Thanksgiving and go to a conference committee with the House within a week, he said.

"I'm assuming if we don't get cloture, we'll just extend the present farm bill," Harkin said.

When asked how long that extension would be, one year or two, he said, "If we can't get a farm bill through the Senate that came out of the committee without a dissenting vote, what's the point of doing it next year with the same Senate?"

When asked to respond to speculation by Congressional staffers that the White House has pressured the Republican leadership to kill the farm bill in the Senate, Harkin said he had heard those rumors, too. President Bush's threatened veto of the farm bill is considered politically disastrous for farm state Republicans, Harkin said, so the strategy is to kill it in the Senate before it could be vetoed.

"I've heard it from enough sources to say that there's probably some wind behind it," Harkin said.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Congressman Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced a bill to extend the 2002 farm law for one fiscal year, until the end of next September.

"This is a very surprising situation I find myself in," he said at a press conference. "I have never been an advocate of extending a farm bill."

Moran, the ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee's commodities subcommittee, cited growing uncertainty for wheat producers and their lenders as one factor in filing the bill.

Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said the bill was necessary "in light of the very difficult situation that has now developed in the United States Senate," which remained deadlocked on how many amendments to consider on the farm bill. Goodlatte is less optimistic than Harkin that the Senate will be able to complete the bill before the end of the year and hold a conference committee to produce a final bill to be sent to President Bush.

Bush is also likely to veto the bill if tax increases included in House and Senate versions remain in the final legislation, he said.

Goodlatte said the extension is needed because if the Senate can't finish a farm bill by the end of this calendar year, the farm programs would revert to 1938 and 1949 laws that would be disruptive to the marketplace. Dairy price supports, for example, would rise to more than $30 per hundredweight, he said.

Goodlatte said that the bill has 22 co-sponsors, including other Republicans on the House Ag Committee. The Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) said the move is premature.

Goodlatte and Moran said the Bush administration knows about the extension bill.

"The USDA and the White House are aware we're taking this action today," Goodltatte said. "And they're also concerned about what happens to American farmers and ranchers as we move forward on this."

Added Moran, "I'm not aware of any position the administration is taking" on the extension bill.

On the partisan divide in the Senate, Goodlatte pointed out that more than half of some 270 amendments offered to the farm bill were those of Democratic members of the Senate.

Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner said Thursday he believes the partisan bickering in both chambers of Congress must be overcome. But, he added there remains time to move a farm bill forward, doing so within the fiscal framework sought by the Bush administration.

"I believe Congress has a responsibility to deliver a new farm bill. The administration unveiled our comprehensive farm bill proposal nearly 11 months ago for the very purpose of delivering a new farm bill before farmers faced difficult decisions due to uncertainty about future farm policy," Conner said. "There is still time for Congress to pass a new farm bill. The Senate must act quickly to engage in a full and open debate and to deliver a farm bill that contains honest bookkeeping without raising taxes.

"I urge Congress to demonstrate its commitment to farmers and other farm bill stakeholders by delivering a new farm bill that serves farmers and America well," he added.

If you've never watched the Senate in action on C-SPAN2, Friday would be a good day. You'll be able to watch to see if the Senate reaches 60 votes needed for cloture, which would limit debate on the farm bill and bar amendments not relevant to the bill.

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