Logjam in farm bill debate in the Senate may be broken

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — An agreement between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, on the floor of the Senate late in the afternoon Nov. 14 could break the logjam that has prevented progress on the farm bill since it was introduced before the body a week earlier. The two leaders agreed the "universe" of amendments that potentially could be offered to the farm bill during the course of the debate would be frozen at around 260, or the number submitted by the evening of Nov. 13.

The agreement was termed by both leaders a "baby step," as there remained no agreement on how many or which amendments among the 260 actually will be allowed to be introduced, debated and voted upon.

Mr. Reid since the farm bill was brought to the floor by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, ranking minority member on the committee, sought to limit amendments introduced for debate and vote to those on subjects germane to the farm bill itself. To accomplish this, he engaged in a maneuver known as "filling the tree," by which he claimed the right to determine which amendments were germane and could be offered and which were irrelevant and therefore could not be introduced.

The Senate Republican leadership wanted an open process whereby any Senator could introduce any amendment on any subject to be debated and voted on. Disagreement on procedure resulted in stalemate until the action on Nov. 14.

Earlier in the day Nov. 14, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the majority whip, charged Senate Republicans seemed intent on preventing passage of a farm bill, despite broad bipartisan support in the agriculture committee. Mr. Durbin pointed to several Republican amendments he said had no relevance to the farm bill or to agriculture or nutrition. He said a number of Republican amendments related to the alternative minimum tax, the estate tax and even the mortgage crisis. One amendment related to issues arising from the Exxon Valdez oil spill of several years ago.

Democratic leaders acknowledged a number of amendments offered by Democrats also lacked relevance.

Senate Republican leaders agreed many if not most of the amendments on both the Republican and Democratic lists likely will not be introduced and debated.

Both sides expressed hope the farm bill would be passed by the Senate before the Thanksgiving break or immediately thereafter.

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