Despite Tom Harkin's protests to the contrary, the 2002 farm bill has become a political issue Democrats are using to further the re-election efforts of Midwest senators and the presidential aspirations of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. In a night meeting of the House-Senate conference committee on April 18, Sen. Harkin rebuked Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran for urging his Senate colleagues to stop “playing politics” with the farm bill. For anyone familiar with the two men, it was like Bozo the Clown lecturing Winston Churchill.

The exchange followed a press release in which Daschle accused House conferees of refusing to accept “reasonable compromises” to help pass a new farm bill. Nowhere did the release mention that Daschle himself had derailed a compromise two nights earlier.

Harkin, who reportedly faces an uphill battle to retain his Iowa Senate seat, claimed that Daschle was responding to attacks by the Bush administration. Interestingly, Daschle used 10 pararaphs to rebut what was an almost off-hand remark by a member of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's staff.

To see how partisan the farm bill debate has become on the Senate side, contrast the statements of Harkin and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., with those of Reps. Larry Combest, Republican chairman of the House Ag Committee, and Charles Stenholm, the committee's ranking minority member.

Rather than engaging in tirades like the Harkin-Cochran exchange, Combest and Stenholm have sat side by side, working together to try to complete a farm bill that would help their constituents. Combest should be nominated for sainthood for enduring Harkin's seemingly endless, rambling monologues.

Daschle's complaints notwithstanding, sources close to the negotiations said House conference leaders had given more ground than anyone expected, particularly on the issue of loan rates.

Senate Democrats have demanded that House members move closer to their position on loan rates because it is the “fastest way” to increase farmer incomes. House members and the administration have countered that higher loan rates won't help farmers who don't produce a crop and that they will increase production.

“We have tried to tell Daschle's agricultural aide that if the corn loan rate is above $2, Southern farmers will cover them up with corn,” said a farm lobbyist. “Prices will go down, and they will be the ones with a payment limit problem.”

Those comments and efforts to refute Democratic claims on packer ownership of livestock and country-of-origin labeling, both key issues for incumbent Tim Johnson from Daschle's South Dakota, have been to no avail. Neither have Senate Democrats been willing to honor their earlier pledge to modify the Grassley amendment.

At week's end, Washington analysts like the Sparks Companies' Jim Weismeyer were noting the Senate Democratic leadership was trying to protect Midwest senators while apparently being willing to sacrifice Southern Democrats like Georgia's Max Cleland, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu or Missouri's Jean Carnahan.

For life-long Democrats, this will sound like apostasy of the worst order. But it may be time for someone like Blanche Lincoln, who could probably win on either ticket in Arkansas, to change parties and put the Senate Democratic leadership back in the minority where it belongs.