A week that began with high hopes for passage of a Senate farm bill dwindled away before Christmas with little real work accomplished and few Senators present on the floor.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, visibly annoyed by numerous delays, promised to push a bill to a vote.

Responding to a highly critical Washington Post editorial titled, “A Piggy Farm Bill,” in mid-December, Harkin appeared on the Senate floor wearing a navy blue tie festooned with small white pigs. “I'm for the little pigs,” he said.

The Democrat-backed S. 1731 promises a counter-cyclical payment during times of low commodity prices, continued loan rates, a direct payment that eventually phases out, and a payment for conservation practices.

Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind. read from the Post editorial, which called S. 1731 “indulgent policy”, saying, “This bill is not redeemable but it is improvable.”

Earlier, Lugar's proposal for an essentially insurance-based farm program was defeated by a 70-30 vote.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., then proposed their long-awaited amendment, which Roberts said was an antidote to Harkin's, “policies of the past.”

The Cochran-Roberts proposal calls for creating a farm savings account similar to a 401K plan that farmers could tap when needed. The federal government would match farmers' contributions up to $10,000 yearly. Total funding could not exceed 150 percent of a five-year average of the farmer's adjusted gross revenue. All farmers and ranchers, regardless of commodity, would be eligible to take part in the program.

“It's truly a counter-cyclical program. and participation is voluntary. The incentive is the matching USDA payment,” Roberts said.

Criticizing Harkin for trying to quickly push legislation through the Senate, Roberts said odds are remote that S. 1731 as written by the Ag Committee could be made law. “It's going to be almost impossible to conference with the House, and the administration opposes it,” he said.

The Democrats' attempt to halt the debate and bring S. 1731 to a vote was rebuffed when a cloture motion failed to get the required 60 percent approval. “We will keep coming back until after Christmas, if we have to, to get this job done,” said Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

“How we transition from Freedom to Farm to whatever it is Congress passes is something farmers need to know. There's so much uncertainty in agriculture as it is, to not act as quickly as we can is compounding the problem. The Department of Agriculture also needs as much lead-time as possible to make the transition as smooth as they can.

“There are many reasons why we need to finish our work. We are determined to finish this bill, to do all we can to finish this bill on the floor and in conference. We will stay, we will work, to do whatever we have to, to compromise. It's been one week. It'll be two weeks. If necessary, it'll be three weeks or whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Republicans insisted a bill of this magnitude needs plenty of time for debate. Cochran called the Democrats' effort to limit amendments unfair.

“This is a serious issue with huge ramifications not only for those involved in agriculture but also for consumers world-wide.” he said. “If passing a farm bill is that important, why did they wait until the last weeks of the session of Congress to bring up a bill like this?”

Democrats chaffed at the many delays and the Republicans' complaints.

“I don't understand why our Republican friends don't just offer their amendments on agriculture and let us go to final passage,” Daschle said. “Some have decided to slow-walk this bill through the Senate. My hope is those who developed this slow-motion policy understand they have delayed dramatically our ability to pass a farm bill on the floor of the Senate and to get a conference bill with the House.”

“Every farm organization and commodity group in America has asked us to do this job now,” said Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. “This is about values. Does this country want family producers? If it does, we have to develop policies for that. I don't know if the president will sign it. That's up to him. It's our job to write the best farm bill possible.

chjohnson@primediabusiness.com.