WASHINGTON – The Senate has killed for this year a farm bill opposed by President Bush that would have boosted spending on agriculture and nutrition programs by nearly 80 percent. Democrats said they will try again in January.
For the third time in a week, majority Democrats were unable Wednesday to muster the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and bring the legislation to a final vote. The stalemate pushes the issue into an election year, when control of the Senate and the seats of several farm-state members will be at stake.
The 54-43 vote "jeopardizes billions of dollars in assistance to farmers and ranchers, which is available now and which are not likely to be available next year," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Daschle pulled the bill from the Senate floor after losing the vote.
Republicans say there is plenty of time and money available to write a farm bill next year, before existing programs expire. The Democratic bill raises crop subsidies so high that it would encourage excess production and drive down commodity prices, according to the Bush administration.
"I'm disappointed that the Senate has chosen to go down such a partisan path," said Bruce Knight, a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association. "This is a lot more about control of the Senate than the best way to provide a farm bill."
The Democratic bill would reauthorize farm programs through 2006. Most of the money would continue to go to grain, cotton and soybean farms, but the bill offers new subsidies for a variety of additional commodities, including milk, honey and lentils, and also would double spending on conservation programs.
The Bush administration criticized both that bill and another one passed by the GOP-controlled House in October, and urged Congress to delay finishing work on them until 2002.
This year's congressional budget agreement set aside $170 billion to be spent on farm programs over the next decade. But farm groups are worried that lawmakers will be less willing to spend all of that money on agricultural subsidies after the release next month of new budget forecasts, which are expected to project several years of deficits.
Before Wednesday's vote, Daschle warned that the planned farm spending could be cut as much as $40 billion if lawmakers waited.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said farm legislation would be a top priority of the Senate in January. "We can complete action in due time," he said.
The Bush administration backed a GOP bill, soundly defeated by the Senate on Tuesday, that provided farmers more money in fixed annual payments.
Before Wednesday's vote, Democratic leaders sidestepped a battle over the size of subsidies that individual farmers could receive by blocking an amendment by Sen. Charles Grassley, D-Iowa, to tighten payment limits.
The Democratic bill would allow farmers to continue to receive virtually unlimited amounts of crop subsidies, a concession to win the vote of southern Democrats. Grassley wants to set a strict $150,000 limit per farmer.
Advocates of payment limits say that big subsidies drive up land values and rents, making it more difficult for small and medium-size farms to compete with larger operations.
"Senator Daschle has gotten his priorities wrong," said Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb. "He has decided he needs to pass a farm bill, but to do so he's decided to pass a farm bill that destroys family farming."
Opponents of such caps say they penalize big, low-cost farmers.
Five Republicans broke ranks Wednesday to support the limit on debate: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
The Bush administration says the House and Senate bills risk breaking U.S. trade commitments and provide too much money to big farms that least need the assistanc