Back to the land

Some of the Senate’s final days this year will be dominated not by talk of taxes, global warming and Iraq, but by crop insurance, soybean subsidies and programs for asparagus, chickpeas and camellia (which we learn is an Asian shrub with rose-like flowers).

With just days remaining before adjournment, the Senate isn’t busy debating must-pass spending bills, funding for the Iraq war or a historic energy bill. Instead, senators are slowly moving forward on a new five-year farm bill, a measure that has generated comparatively few headlines.

At least two reasons explain why the Senate is using valuable floor time to finish the farm bill.
First, the measure is critically important to farm-state legislators in both parties, who want to be able to return home for Christmas right after the release of statements hailing approval of a farm bill that can bring goodies to small rural towns.

This is important for Democrats such as Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Max Baucus (Mont.), who were active in the year-long struggle to create a bill, as well as Republicans such as Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.), who faces a tough reelection test next year and doesn’t want to give opponents any ammunition with Minnesota’s rural voters.

Like Coleman, Baucus is also up for reelection, and while he doesn’t seem vulnerable, he does represent a state that voted twice for President Bush.  

The political implications are one reason Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to give time to the farm bill. Under their deal, 40 amendments will be considered, and while some will be withdrawn, the process will take time.

So far the going has been slow. As of Wednesday morning only one amendment had been voted on, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Agriculture panel, said a final vote on the bill could be put off until next week.

A second reason that time has been devoted to the farm bill is that nothing else important is ready to move. Democrats are in a standoff with the White House on the spending bills and Iraq war funding, and both sides appear to have dug in.

Behind the scenes, negotiators are trying to complete work on an energy bill and legislation overhauling FISA courts, but it is not clear that work will get done before the end of the year.
The farm bill is less controversial and less partisan. On Tuesday, the Senate defeated perhaps the most important amendment, a subsidy-reforming measure that failed in a 58-37 vote, with the “no” vote split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

If the Senate completes no other work but the farm bill this year, the closing headlines of 2007 will be about impasses and a failure to fund American troops. But many a lawmaker will nevertheless get home with something to crow about.