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Farm bill falls five votes short

ST. PAUL Farmers probably will have to wait until next year for new federal agriculture policy. After two weeks of senators' floor speeches about the importance of the farm bill, the Senate fell five votes short Friday of cutting off debate and m...

ST. PAUL Farmers probably will have to wait until next year for new federal agriculture policy.

After two weeks of senators' floor speeches about the importance of the farm bill, the Senate fell five votes short Friday of cutting off debate and moving toward a final vote.

Now the $286 billion legislation which also funds federal food stamps, conservation programs, renewable energy initiatives and rural economic development projects remains stalled in the Senate as Congress prepares to leave Washington for Thanksgiving.

If the Senate approves new five-year legislation, it still must be reconciled with a similar version the House passed in July, and that now appears unlikely to occur during the few weeks of congressional work between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Senate Republicans blamed the majority Democrats for blocking GOP amendments to the bill from being considered, while Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and others said Republicans tried to bog down the bill with unrelated tax and immigration proposals.


"America's family farmers deserve better than to have this critical legislation held hostage by a few senators who want to turn it into a Christmas tree and hang every ornament from it," said Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a Senate Agriculture Committee member. "To load this bill down with unrelated matters will sink it."

Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, also a committee member, was among four Republicans who voted with Democrats to end debate Friday. But a day earlier, Coleman criticized Democrats for limiting his party's opportunity to offer proposed changes to the legislation. That was allowed in previous farm bill debates, he said.

North Dakota's other Democratic Senator, Byron Dorgan, also voted to move the bill forward.

President Bush has threatened to veto both House and Senate farm proposals. The Senate version was approved unanimously by Harkin's committee, and Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to kill new farm legislation before it goes to Bush because a presidential veto could be unpopular in farm country.

"It is curious that they would come out with a bill that had that kind of support then would get into this kind of situation on the floor," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

Both the House and Senate bills are criticized for lacking reform to farmer subsidy payments, but otherwise generally are praised by agriculture, nutrition and conservation groups.

The bill would greatly benefit farmers and ranchers in the North and South Dakota, Minnesota and other Plains states. It would boost target prices and loan rates for a variety of crops including wheat, barley, oats, soybeans and minor oilseeds when prices are low. It would require country-of-origin labels on meats and other foods, a priority for farmers who compete with Canadian cattle ranchers. And it would maintain much of the current subsidy system, which has treated Midwest farmers well in recent years.

Peterson, D-Detroit Lakes, said if the Senate approves its bill before the end of December, House and Senate negotiators could reach an agreement in January.


But Harkin has said if his bill is delayed further, new agriculture policy could wait until after the November 2008 presidential election.

It is too soon to consider extending current policies for a year or two, Peterson said, because that could mean less money for agriculture programs. And if neither new policy nor an extension of existing law can be reached, then the dairy and sugar beet industries could be harmed, he said.

"I'm hopeful that they will continue to work over the next two weeks and see if there's some way they can come to some resolution or accommodation so that they can move ahead," Peterson said of the Senate.

Coleman said there is too much good policy at stake in the new proposal to accept an extension of existing agriculture policy.

"I still believe we're going to get a (new) farm bill," Coleman said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the farm bill has bipartisan support, but "some members are suddenly ready to plow this bill under."

"We can't wait until next harvest to get this done," Klobuchar said, adding it would take that long because of unrelated amendments being offered. "Our rural economies, our farmers, ranchers and workers are counting on us to get this bill done."

Dorgan agreed, saying there needs to be more cooperation in the Senate.


"It takes a reasonable amount of cooperation to get things done," Dorgan said. "We got no cooperation . . . I know the farmers are extremely frustrated watching this progress. They want Congress to make a decision one way or the other."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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