Even by its Olympic standards for hyperbole and hypocrisy, the performance of the U.S. Senate during the fruitless, pre-Thanksgiving farm bill debate was breathtaking.
For a week, the nation watched and listened as 100 grown men and women, arguably the best-educated, most thoughtful leaders in America, bickered like kindergartners over rules on how to divvy up 286 billion crayons on the farm bill table.
The adult supervision of the affair was little better. From the White House, President Bush threatened to veto any farm bill that resembled either the Senate or House version.
Ironically, the president’s snarl, while aimed at the Democrats, hit his party’s aggies harder because they – especially the Southern planter class – were the ones who, with assistance from some pliant Dems on the ag committees, beat back meaningful payment limit reform, the White House’s chief farm bill goal.
Elections. The ferocity of the president’s attack left Senate Republican farm leader Saxby Chambliss little to do but take to the Senate floor to defend he and his colleagues’ “bipartisan” farm bill that had made “serious reforms.”
The Georgian, however, wasn’t looking to defend his farm bill handiwork so much as looking to next year’s election when Republicans must defend 22 of the 34 Senate seats in play.
With 10 of those seats in cotton and rice country, Southern Republicans are in need of some – any, really – legislative hide to nail to their campaign signs. A farm bill that protects today’s cotton, rice and sugar programs and lacks hard caps on program payments would do nicely.
Besides, Chambliss firmly hinted, Bush isn’t up for re-election; I am.
With politics being a two-way street where each party scraps over your money to fill the potholes on their side, Democrats played their part to blow up the floor debate. Their insistence on limiting the number of amendments offered to the bill during debate gave the Repubs the only stick they needed to beat back any movement forward during the days of dizzying tail-chasing.
Moving on. That move was necessary, of course, because without a limit, the Senate farm bill debate would have droned on and on over every topic other than agriculture. But the outcome of the amendment-limiting vote was pre-ordained; everyone knew it must fail, as it did, before anyone could move on.
And move on, after the two-week Thanksgiving break, they will. But without enough votes to break the Senate amendment deadlock – it takes 60 to invoke cloture; Dems got 55 on the Nov. 16 roll call vote – the push for passage in the inertia-laden Senate rests solely with the Democrats.
Key farm bill players like Democrat Kent Conrad spent Thanksgiving week urging his North Dakota farm and ranch constituents to telephone every farm and commodity organization they can think of “to put pressure on those who are slowing progress.”
Seven of “those” slowpokes are Republican members of Senate Ag Committee who sided with their party’s leader rather than their aggie colleagues on the failing cloture vote.
Three GOP committee members, John Thune, S.D., Charles Grassley, Iowa, and Norm Coleman, Minn., however, voted for the Democratic-sponsored shortcut.
Even if the public pressure works and the Senate approves the farm bill shortly after it returns – a massive “if,” given the bitter partisanship in that chamber – it must be meshed with a very different House farm bill before the entire, rancorous process begins again.
Placing bets. The smart money is betting a final House-Senate farm bill will not be done by Easter 2008, let alone Christmas 2007. Don’t ask me who those smarties are because I’d be hard-pressed to label anything about this farm bill fight as smart.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
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