Senate Agriculture Committee leaders are urging farmers to contact their organizations and ask them to pressure senators to stop delaying consideration of the committee-passed version of the 2007 farm bill.
The Senate officially began debate on the committee farm bill on Nov. 5 but so far has held only one vote on the measure. That vote on a motion to invoke cloture on Nov. 16 fell five votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate and the number of amendments that could be offered for the bill.
Ag committee leaders have said they planned to schedule another vote on cloture shortly after the Senate returned to Washington on Dec. 3. If they fail, the current farm bill may have to be extended a year or two, according to Sen. Kent Conrad, senior Democrat on the committee.
“We need to put pressure on those who are slowing progress,” said Conrad of North Dakota. “If you're a grain grower, call the National Corn Growers. If you're a rancher, call R-CALF or the National Cattleman's Beef Association. Tell the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation to put pressure on these senators.
“We need to move this farm bill forward. It's far too important for North Dakota and our nation to leave this critical legislation hanging.”
Conrad was referring to Republicans who have held up action on the legislation after Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., attempted to limit the number of amendments to those that “were germane” to the farm bill.
“We all know we're going to pass a farm bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has denied claims Republicans are delaying the measure. “It's a matter of when the heavy-handed Democratic leadership decides to stop trying to limit open debate.”
Conrad reportedly has been negotiating with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., ranking minority member of the ag committee, to try to pare down the number of amendments that will be offered to the farm bill. (At press time, the number of potential amendments exceeded 270.)
“I feel much better than I did before (about the amendments),” said Conrad. “But we need to make more progress on getting senators to agree to get down to business on this farm bill.”
Although a group of House Republicans has proposed a one-year extension of the current farm bill, Conrad said he remains hopeful none will be necessary.
“Such a move might be necessary in a worst-case scenario,” said Conrad. “But we have to keep at it. We have a chance for a breakthrough if we can get the Senate to act.”
Several members of Congress, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, have said they believe writing a farm bill in 2008 or 2009 will be even more difficult because the farm bill baseline could be even lower than it is for the 2007 bill.
“I just want to say the people who think extending this is going to be easy should think again,” said Peterson, D-Minn. “It could be even more problematic than passing a bill now because you have folks that have all kinds of things in this bill they're interested in so there's going to be a lot of reluctance to extend even at a later date.”
Peterson said he doubts Congress would go for a one-year extension because of next year's presidential elections. “Once that train leaves the station, it won't be a one-year extension, it will be a two-year extension until after the next election,” he noted.
“I just want to remind people that given what CBO has estimated and what we expect to happen that means when we got back around to it there would be even less money available in the baseline than there is now.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has accused the White House of pressuring Republican senators to delay action on the committee bill to avoid a promised veto if the legislation reaches the president's desk in its current state.
But Harkin remains optimistic. “I want to assure everyone we have not given up. This is just the first round,” he said, adding he expected the Senate to act on the legislation after senators heard from their constituents during the Thanksgiving break.
While Harkin believes the bill can reach the president's desk in December, other observers note the Senate faces a full calendar, including votes on most of the spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
If the Senate does not act and the farm bill drags into 2008 or 2009, some observers are reminding that after the 2008 harvest, farm programs will begin to revert to the 1949 farm law, which requires that loan rates be set at a percentage of parity.