The Cochran-Roberts amendment, which featured higher AMTA payments and federal matching funds for a new Farm Savings Account, had drawn the support of the Bush administration. But a number of moderate Republicans crossed over and voted to defeat the proposal, 55-40.

“This amendment will avoid a return to the failed policies of the past,” said Roberts, referring to the higher loan rates contained in the bill passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee in late November.

But Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., shot back that the Cochran-Roberts amendment represented a “return to the failed policies of Freedom to Farm,” the name generally given to the 1996 farm bill that is scheduled to expire next fall.

Earlier, the Democratic leadership fell six votes short of the required 60 votes on a motion to bring cloture to the ongoing farm bill debate and force a vote on the Senate Agriculture Committee bill.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the Senate Ag Committee chairman and floor manager for the bill, charged that Republican “delaying tactics” were putting passage of new legislation this year in jeopardy.

As a result, he and other Democrats said, Republicans were running the risk of losing $73.5 billion in funding set aside for additional farm spending over the next 10 years in both the House-passed farm bill and the Senate Ag Committee bill.

If the Senate does fail to pass a farm bill before it adjourns, possibly as early as Friday, “Republicans will have a lot of explaining to do when they get home,” said Dorgan.

Republican leaders have cited administration promises that the $73.5 billion in additional funding will still be available in 2002 as justification for not completing a new farm bill until next year.

But Democrats again called those promises “ludicrous.”

“Given the way the economy has been performing in recent months, it will be virtually impossible to come up with the same levels of funding as those contained in the current bill,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. “If we don’t act now to keep the farm bill process moving, our farmers will be the losers.”

Some farm organizations, meanwhile, are saying that Republicans will “be held accountable” for their tactics during the nearly nine days of debate on the Ag Committee bill.

“The stalling tactics used by some senators these last few days have jeopardized needed assistance for farmers,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau. “If the result is we don’t get a farm bill until next year and the $73.5 billion is cut, we’ll know who to blame.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.