The Senate fell five votes short of cutting off debate on the farm bill, a move Democratic leaders said was necessary for Congress to complete work on the legislation and send it to the president by year's end.
A total of 51 Democrats and four Republicans voted for a motion to invoke cloture that would have provided for 30 hours of debate and a limited number of amendments that were germane to the bill, the Food and Energy Security Act of 2007.
Floor managers for the farm bill accused Republican leaders - and the White House - of “deliberately orchestrating an attempt to derail” the $288-billion bill, which would increase target prices and loan rates of wheat and soybeans and expand the current law's conservation, nutrition and energy titles.
Republicans said the blame lay with Majority Leader Harry Reid for attempting to limit the number of amendments that could be offered for the legislation.
“Frankly, I worry that there is a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to derail the farm bill,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin. Earlier, Harkin said a cloture vote on Friday (Nov. 16) could lead to passage of the bill and the president's signature by Christmas.
“Between Republican filibusters here in the Senate, and President Bush's barrage of vetoes and veto threats, they seem to be setting up a giant train wreck at the end of this session of Congress. Maybe, the president and Congressional Republicans think a train wreck is a good idea. But it is not in the best interests of the American people.”
Prior to the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate “could have been voting on a farm bill today. Instead, we haven't had the first vote because of the Democrats refusal to allow amendments to be introduced freely.”
Sen. Harkin, whose committee passed its version of the farm bill without a dissenting vote back in October, said in a speech prior to the vote that farmers are becoming increasingly frustrated by the Senate's failure to act on the new legislation.
“This cloture vote is pivotal, crucial as to whether we will have a new farm bill this year or not,” he said. “And everyone knows it. Let me remind my colleagues of what's at stake here. Why it's so critically important that we put an end to the delay and move ahead.
Harkin said the motion would require the votes of Republican members of the Senate Agriculture Committee for passage. However, only three Republicans on the committee - Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and John Thune of South Dakota - voted for the motion.
Harkin pledged to keep fighting to get the bill through the Senate and enacted into law. “The fight will continue today, tomorrow and just as long into next month as it takes to get the job done.”
When Harkin brought the Senate Agriculture Committee bill to the floor on Nov. 5, senators had already filed 60 amendments to the measure. Since then, the list has grown to more than 270 amendments on such issues as immigration reform, the alternative minimum tax and expanding the renewable fuel standard.
When Reid asked senators to limit amendments to those germane to the farm bill, he said he was only asking what other majority leaders had sought with previous farm bills. But Republicans accused him of stifling debate and began a series of filibusters delaying action until leaders could reach an agreement.
The cloture motion brought by Sen. Reid on Wednesday would have limited debate to 30 hours and permitted a certain number of amendments that would be agreed to by the majority and minority leaders.
“We are at a procedural impasse,” said Harkin. “We simply cannot obtain the necessary cooperation from the Republican leadership. They will not agree to a reasonable plan so that we vote and debate on only germane amendments so we avoid dealing with a Christmas tree of non-germane amendments.”
Harkin said the refusal of the Republican leaders to act lends credence to rumors the White House “has put out the word to kill the bill” rather than face the political fallout if the president vetoed the legislation.
As the Senate debated the motion, farm organizations urged Senate leaders to move forward with consideration of the 2007 farm bill as soon as possible. Environmental groups also asked Senate leaders to move ahead on the farm bill - “with full and fair consideration of relevant amendments.”
A letter signed by 17 agriculture-related groups, including the National Farmers Union, noted a number of provisions of the 2002 farm bill expired nearly two months ago and that few calendar days remain for Congress to provide farmers with the “certainty of a new farm bill.”
“We need a new and improved conservation title, and extension of the 2002 farm bill is not, in our view, an acceptable alternative,” said a letter sent by the environmental groups. “We believe the bill reported by the Agriculture Committee makes very important strides in addressing key conservation issues and programs, but we also are united in the view that important improvements to both policy and funding need to be made on the floor.”
Meanwhile, a group of House members led by Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., introduced legislation to extend the 2002 farm bill for an additional year beyond the Sept. 30 expiration date.
Among those joining Moran, ranking member on the House General Commodities Subcommittee, were Reps. Charles Boustany, R-La.; Mike Conaway, R-Texas; Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas; Sam Graves, R-Mo.; Richard Baker, R-La.; Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo.; Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering, R-Miss.; Ralph Hall, R-Texas; and Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said he thought talk of an extension was premature. “We should be focusing on getting a new farm bill finished,” he said. “The budget situation isn't getting any better, and a year from now, we may have less money available to write the farm bill.”
In a telephone conference with reporters, Harkin indicated that some Democrats may be willing to take their chances with a “new Congress and a new president” if the Senate is unable to break its current impasse.