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Reid files cloture motion to end farm bill impasse

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed a cloture motion on the 2007 farm bill as hopes faded that the Senate would act on the legislation before Congress began its Thanksgiving recess.

The vote to limit debate, which, at press time, was scheduled for Friday (Nov. 16), seemed to further lessen the chances the bill could pass the Senate, go to a House-Senate conference committee and reach the president’s desk before the end of the year.

The majority leader’s action came as senators on both sides of the aisle expressed growing frustration over the failure of the Senate to take one vote on the farm bill more than a week after it was brought to the floor by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin on Nov. 5.

“It is frustrating and perplexing that we cannot move such a strong, bipartisan measure,” said Harkin, whose committee passed its version of the farm bill by a unanimous vote back in October.

“Just yesterday (Nov. 14) I asked the Republicans to allow the Senate to vote on amendments that they themselves want to offer for debate,” said Harkin. “Five times I asked for that. My request was rejected out of hand. So I think it is very clear who’s stopping this bill.”

Members of both parties blamed opposing leaders for the impasse with Democrats accusing Republicans of throwing up obstacles in the form of numerous amendments to the bill and Republicans criticizing Reid for attempting to stifle debate.

Reid ignited the debate when he called on senators to limit amendments to those that were germane to the farm bill because of the limited number of days for the Senate to complete its calendar for 2007. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly accused Reid of trying to “muzzle” senators.

As Republican after Republican denounced Reid’s comments, an exasperated majority leader returned to the floor to say the issue was “much ado over nothing,” that majority leaders had made similar requests in the past without invoking such fury.

As positions hardened, Reid announced he “had filled the tree” with the amendments, and Republicans continued to complain about the move to ban amendments, particularly an amendment to the energy title that was expected to be offered by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. Meanwhile, the number of amendments has grown daily.

“I just received an e-mail from the minority leader’s office that says 265 amendments are now pending,” said West Higginbotham, agriculture aide for Sen. Thad Cochran, speaking to members of the Delta Council at their mid-year board meeting in Stoneville, Miss.

The motion to invoke cloture, which requires 60 votes for passage, would allow 30 hours of debate and the introduction of a limited number of amendments germane to the farm bill, Harkin told reporters during a weekly press briefing.

He said the cloture motion could determine whether Congress passes a farm bill in 2007 or continues to pass extensions of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, the current law.

“The Republicans have managed to delay the bill long enough that we can’t get it through the Senate before Thanksgiving,” he said. “But, if we can get cloture tomorrow (Nov. 16), we can finish the bill on the second day when we come back from Thanksgiving; we can go to conference; we can finish the conference in a week; and we can have the bill to the president before Christmas.”

If the cloture vote failed, Harkin said he wasn’t sure what the Senate would do. “We can try to see if there are things we can do to reach some meaningful compromises with the White House. They haven’t been involved other to say that it’s what they want or nothing.”

Asked if he thought there was any truth to the rumors that the White House had told the Republican leadership to kill the bill, Harkin said he felt the reports “had some wind behind them.

“It almost seems to be a deliberate attempt to stall the bill and perhaps kill it,” he said. “It just seems that this obstruction of the farm bill is part and parcel of a Republican strategy of creating a giant train wreck at the end of the Congress.”

Republicans denied the accusations and said the failure of the Democratic leadership to move the legislation in a timely manner had created the logjam as Congress neared the end of the session.

Higginbotham told Delta Council members he was glad to hear some “encouraging words” from both the majority and minority leaders in the Senate on “getting a farm bill done” when he spoke to them through a video link from Washington on Nov. 14.

“Now whether that’s this week or the week we come back from Thanksgiving, it’s difficult to tell,” he said. “They are trying to get a priority list of amendments from both sides to work on and hopefully will accept a lot of amendments that are non-controversial.”

Higginbotham said efforts might be made to have the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment accepted as part of the cloture motion. “If that happens, that will make it very difficult for senators such as Sen. Cochran to support the underlying bill.”

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