Politics fly in potential farm bill extension

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Democrats and Republicans continue to spar over whom is to blame on the nearly 2-week stall on farm bill debate in the Senate. The contingent point -- how many amendments to allow on the floor for debate. And without movement on the bill by tomorrow (Friday) before senators leave for their two-week Thanksgiving break, there is a risk the bill will not be completed this year and an extension will be the only option.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has filed a cloture vote to limit debate to 30 hours and allow only amendments that directly relate to the farm bill. Whether he'll get the 60 votes remains unknown since there are 49 Democrats and 2 Independents who normally vote with Democrats.

The Democrats have offered a list of 140 amendments; the Republicans 120. In the last passed farm bill, there were 53 amendments. In 1996, there were 24. Republicans are not backing down on pushing for debate on amendments including immigration, estate tax repeal and an enhanced renewable fuels standard.

Reid and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin charged openly today that Senate Republicans and the White House are attempting to kill the bill in the Senate. Harkin said he believes that Congressional Republicans would rather have it die now than to have the President carry through with a threatened veto next year — in the midst of primary elections -- after the bill goes through the Senate-House conference.

But, a senior USDA official said this morning "there is no truth to rumors" the Administration is trying to kill the Senate's bill. The official noted the Administration unveiled its farm bill proposal in January to allow plenty of time for timely action.

"It is difficult to see this as anything other than the excuse for their own inability to take action," the USDA official said referring to remarks by Harkin that the White House is working with Senate Republican leadership to kill the bill.

The idea of the White House sabotaging farm bill legislation is nothing new. When the House passed their version in July, the idea was tossed around that the Administration would benefit from a continuation of the current bill. Although the rumor was disregarded by the Administration, current actions could make you contemplate otherwise.

Bleak timeline

With the Senate's impasse on the farm bill, speculation is running high in Washington about the timeline to get it to the President. Let's assume the Senate does not take up meaningful debate on the farm bill until it returns on Dec. 3 from the Thanksgiving recess. Allow a couple of weeks for debate and possible passage — let's say optimistically by Dec. 14.

That means the House would not see the bill until the week of Dec. 17 — the week before the Christmas break. Since both the Senate and House set Nov. 16 as their target adjournment dates for this session, it is unclear what the House will do with a Senate bill passed that late.

Let's assume the Senate-House conference begins in January — whenever the second session of the 110th Congress returns in earnest. With the Iowa presidential caucuses on Jan. 3 and other primaries following quickly, that's apt to be later in the month. Once the conference is finished, the bill goes back to both chambers for a final vote. Then it goes to the President's desk — where a veto has been threatened and is likely unless significant compromises are made.

While the timeline is speculative, it's not unrealistic unless the Senate moves the debate quickly this week.

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