USDA presses for farm bill as Reid considers cloture

Senate Democratic leaders on Wednesday made another effort to force a vote on a 2007 farm bill as acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner warned lawmakers that their chance to pass a farm bill this year is slipping away.

A congressional aide said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) planned to file cloture on the Senate bill for a second time in order to force a vote on the underlying bill on Friday. A previous Reid effort to file cloture just before the Thanksgiving recess failed to secure the 60 votes necessary to end debate. At press time, Reid had yet to file the motion.

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Reid’s second cloture motion is also likely to fail, and reflects the inability so far of Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reach a deal on amendments, a farm bill lobbyist said. McConnell and Reid discussed the issue by phone over the Thanksgiving break and seemed to make some progress, according to lobbyists and congressional aides, but farm bill lobbyists said a resolution remained hard to reach.

The House approved its version of the farm bill last summer, but a Senate version has been stalled by a fight over what amendments will be considered to the bill. Democrats and Republicans disagree over the number of amendments that will be considered, and Democrats also object to the nature of some amendments GOP senators want considered, such as a measure on the estate tax.

“With so much on the table and so much at stake, there should be enough incentive for all sides to find ways to narrow our differences … and come together on a bill that will deliver real benefits to America’s farmers and to the American people,” Conner said in a speech delivered Wednesday at theDTN/Progressive Farmer Ag Summit in Chicago.

Some lobbyists, however, said they saw no reason to think Reid’s latest cloture motion would be more successful than the first. “Right now, I don’t see any difference between this cloture vote and the last one,” said one lobbyist tracking the farm bill. “Unless they have an agreement, I don’t see how this can get through.”

Conner’s speech is the latest in a series of remarks that top USDA officials have given to press Congress to finish the farm bill. Since Aug. 1, Conner and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns have given 31 speeches focused on the legislation. Separately, administration officials and GOP leaders have hammered at Democrats for controlling a Congress that has accomplished few legislative priorities.

The Bush administration has issued veto threats on both the House and Senate versions of the bill, and in his Chicago speech Conner noted that USDA still has “important differences” with the Senate farm bill, such as its potential tax increases and lack of reform of existing farm programs.

But the acting secretary also said these disagreements should not “obscure the fact that a broad consensus has emerged on what needs to be done in a number of vital areas.” Conner stressed that both bills had answered farmers’ calls to increase funds for growers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops, and to address problems with so-called counter-cyclical payments.

USDA’s biggest problem with both bills, Conner said, remains that they would allow farm subsidies to continue to be funneled to the rich. For example, Conner noted that farm subsidies continue to go to residents of Manhattan in New York City.

“I believe we risk jeopardizing support for the agricultural community — and the safety net that is so important to farmers all over the country — if we keep spending taxpayer dollars on support for the wealthy,” Conner said.

The debate in Congress, however, revolves around process, not substance. Democrats have objected to amendments being offered to the bill that are not relevant to farm policy, such as a provision related to providing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. In turn, Republicans have called for an open process in which any measure could be offered.

McConnell this week said the farm bill would have been long finished if the Senate had considered it in an open process, as he said the chamber had done in the past. “It would have been out of here and ready for conference,” McConnell said.

Reid and McConnell have tried to reach an agreement on the bill, and typically speak almost daily about Senate business. During Reid’s trip to Latin America last week, the two scheduled a conference call in which the farm bill was discussed, according to a GOP leadership aide.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has also been working with his counterpart, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), concerning the amendments, according to a Harkin aide.

Conner said in his speech that President Bush wants to sign a strong farm bill, but time is of the essence considering Congress only has three weeks left in the session. “The window of opportunity is closing very fast,” said the acting secretary.