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Senate begins debate on farm bill

Senate leaders agreed to allow members from both parties to offer a maximum of 20 farm bill amendments each so the Senate could try to complete work on the measure before it adjourns for the year.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa announced negotiators had reached an agreement on a 20-amendment maximum — down from 280 that could have been offered — on the eve of a scheduled cloture vote on the farm bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada postponed the cloture vote and told the Senate debate on the farm bill would begin the afternoon of Dec. 7 and continue Dec. 10 in the hope the Senate could complete work on the bill “before we leave here for the year.”

Initially, Reid had said he wanted to limit debate to amendments that were germane to the farm bill when the Senate Agriculture Committee-passed legislation was brought to the floor Nov. 5. But Republicans objected. Another attempt to invoke cloture failed by five votes (60 needed) on Nov. 16.

“The farm bill came to the Senate with great momentum — it stayed within pay-as-you-go budgeting, yet provided needed investments to rural America, farming families and the nation,” Harkin said in a statement announcing the agreement.

“It is a bipartisan measure that passed the Senate Agriculture Committee by voice vote without a single vote voiced against it. And after a month of this bill languishing due to procedural maneuvering, this bill will finally get back on track and bring critical investments to reality.”

Harkin praised the work of Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the senior Democrat on the Committee, Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., ranking member, and Norm Coleman, R-Minn., for working “in a bipartisan manner and negotiating in good faith” to bring an end to the stalemate.

“This agreement shows that, despite significant differences, my colleagues understand just how important passing this farm bill is to all Americans,” said Conrad. “This is a strong bill, and I am pleased common sense prevailed and we can now move forward.”

“It's going to be a lot of work, but we're going to finish the farm bill before we leave, unless something untoward happens,” said Reid. He said he would propose a unanimous consent agreement to proceed with a manager's amendment and 20 first-degree amendments from each party to the farm bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had led the Republican objections to limiting the number of amendments, called the agreement on the 20-amendment maximum “a significant step” toward completing the Senate version.

Chambliss, who chaired the Agriculture Committee before Democrats won a majority in the Senate last November, applauded the efforts of the majority and minority staffs of the committee for “clearing” a number of the 280 amendments so the Senate would only have to deal with 40 during the scheduled debate.

While debate on the bill was expected to begin Dec. 7 and continue Dec. 10, no votes on the bill were scheduled until Dec. 11. Reid seemed confident senators could work through the 40 amendments and complete work on the bill before Christmas.

Farm organizations had been calling on senators to bring an end to the standoff and put the farm bill back on track for passage in time for farmers to begin planning for the 2008 crop season.

“Republican senators, especially those in Texas, have received considerable input and feedback from farmers and all elements of agribusiness during this week, urging them to put partisanship and other issues aside and get a farm bill passed,” said a spokesman for Plains Cotton Growers Inc., in Lubbock, Texas.

Typical of the comments were those by National Farmers Union President Tom Buis who urged members of the Senate to end the delay and move toward consideration of the farm bill.

“The farm bill has been deadlocked in the Senate for nearly a month, despite the bill's unanimous, bipartisan support in the Senate Agriculture Committee and broad support from the countryside,” he said.

“There has been plenty of time to move forward, and it is disappointing that the Senate hasn't passed the farm bill. It is time for senators to stand up in support of rural America, our producers, consumers and their families and vote to proceed on this bill.”

The Senate Ag Committee-approved farm bill would give farmers the option of participating in a revenue-based counter-cyclical payments, would increase the loan rates and target prices for wheat and soybeans and provide added funding for conservation, energy and nutrition programs.

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