The prospects for a bill in 2001, considered a long shot at best by many observers, got even muddier this week after some comments at a press conference held by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Daschle, who poked and prodded the Senate Agriculture Committee for weeks until it finally produced a farm bill in late November, seemed to be giving up on passing a farm bill before Congress adjourns for the year.

At least that’s what Rep. Larry Combest, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, accused him of saying during the press conference.

“Three weeks’ delay after their Committee writes a farm bill, and now only after some speeches, Senate Democrat Majority Leader Tom Daschle reveals there will not be a farm bill this week, and he will not cooperate with the House to complete a farm bill this year,” Combest said.

“For the Senate to delay passage of the farm bill and then not complete their job is like shining up the tractor, driving up to the edge of the field and stalling the engine. It is incredible that the Majority Leader, who represents a state heavily dependent on farming, would abandon producers and leave them to depend on what he admits is ‘a very narrow window’ to send the farm bill to the president.”

Combest asked why Daschle wasn’t “working around the clock to pass a Senate bill and rapidly complete a conference this year? Apparently, Senator Daschle is content to leave farmers stuck in the limbo for months to come.”

But the transcript of Daschle’s comments didn’t necessarily support Combest’s allegations.

Here’s what Daschle said in response to a question about the potential loss of the $73.5 billion in new farm bill funding for the next 10 years if a bill is not signed into law this year:

“I don’t think it is necessarily gone as soon as we come back (for the new year),” Daschle said. “But it’s gone, of course, as soon as the budget process gets under way. So I think we’ve got a very narrow window, which is one of the main reasons why we’re trying to complete our work, at least in the Senate, on the bill before we leave.”

Later, a spokesman for Daschle tried to clear up the confusion with this comment:

“I can tell you what he intended to say,” said Jay Carson, Daschle’s press aide. “It is still his goal to get a farm bill passed through conference and to the president’s desk before the end of the year.”

Whether that happens is almost a function of the number of working days that remain in 2001. At one point, the Senate planned to adjourn Dec. 14. But Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he thought senators would be willing to work until Christmas “if that’s what it takes to get a farm bill.”

One possible scenario is that the Senate will begin debate on its farm bill on Tuesday, pass a bill and send it to a conference committee of House and Senate members who will attempt to reconcile their respective bills. If the committee acts quickly and the House and Senate pass the conference report, a farm bill could be on the president’s desk by Christmas.

If the conference committee process becomes drawn out, the conferees could continue to work through Christmas and into January even if the House and Senate adjourned. The key would be having the House and Senate approve a conference report and the president sign a bill before the Congressional Budget Office issues a new baseline in early February.

All that speculation assumes that the Senate can agree on a farm bill, that conference members can agree on a compromise bill and that the President will sign the bill. So far, the odds on all of those events falling into place have not appeared to be good.

But some veteran farm bill observers are beginning to see a glimmer of hope.

“A week ago, I would have thought there was a 20 percent chance we would have a farm bill this year,” said a farm organization executive. “Today (Thursday), I think it’s closer to 55-45. I’m seeing people do some amazing things to try to keep this process on track.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.