WASHINGTON – The Senate blocked a $286 billion farm bill Friday, a blow to farm-state lawmakers who wanted to give their constituents expanded subsidies before next year's elections.
Though politically popular, the bill stalled in a dispute between the parties over unrelated amendments that Republicans wanted to add. Democrats failed to get the 60 votes they needed to cut off debate on the measure. The final vote was 55-42.
The vote could push consideration of the legislation into 2008 or beyond. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said Thursday that the bill may fare better after next year's elections, with a new Congress and a new president.
The Bush administration has issued a veto threat against the bill, saying it is too expensive and would pay wealthy farmers too much.
Farm state Democrats headed home for the Thanksgiving recess are preparing to blame Republicans for slowing down the legislation. Some Republicans wanted to offer amendments dealing with the alternative minimum tax, immigration and other nonagricultural issues.
"I need to explain why the farm bill has been obstructed," said South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat who is up for re-election next year. "That is no harm to me. I'm afraid the Republicans have some explaining to do."
Republicans blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for attempting to limit the amendments.
"The Senate will pass a farm bill — that is certain — but only after an open and fair debate on the Senate floor," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The five-year bill would extend the 2002 law that governs farm subsidies and nutrition programs, including food stamps. Most of those programs are operating under a temporary extension now.
The Senate legislation, like a similar bill passed by the House in July, has come under fire from taxpayer and government watchdog groups because it would expand subsidies for some crops and still allow some wealthy farmers to receive government payments.
Supporters of the bill point to an attempt to scale back some subsidy programs, including limits on the amount of money paid to those who don't make a large portion of their income on farming. The bill also increases nutrition benefits for the poor and for rural communities, and adds dollars that protect environmentally sensitive farm land.
As the Senate bill languished, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee said Thursday that he would support extending current law until Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year.
"The consequences of the Senate's inaction are already impacting the planning decisions of our farmers and ranchers," said GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
But House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said it is too early to talk about extending the law.
"The budget situation isn't getting any better, and a year from now, we may have less money available to write the farm bill," he said.
The Department of Agriculture agreed.
"There is still time for Congress to pass a new farm bill," Acting Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner said in a statement.