Senate takes "small" step toward new farm law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a 10-day deadlock, Senate leaders agreed on Wednesday to debate farm bill amendments that could range from subsidy caps and Canadian cattle to immigration and tax law reform.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said he hoped only a “finite number” of amendments would be offered and said Democrats could limit themselves to five. Reid also filed a motion, due for a vote on Friday, to limit the bill to 30 hours of debate.

“The time is slowly evaporating,” said Reid, to pass a bill. Roughly three weeks are left in this year’s session.

Once the Senate acts, House and Senate negotiators must write a final version of the bill to send to the White House, which has threatened to veto each bill as it now stands.

It was unclear which amendment, if any, would be debated on Thursday, said an aide to Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat. The Senate began debate on the bill on November 5 and has deadlocked over which amendments to consider.

Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to limit the Senate to the 264 amendments on file as of Tuesday evening. They did not agree immediately over which would be allowed but McConnell said, “This is a little, small step forward.”

Already pending for debate was a proposal for a “hard” cap on crop subsidies of $250,000 a year per farm. Among the amendments on file was a proposal to void an Agriculture Department rule to allow imports of older Canadian cattle and beef from them. The rule is scheduled to take effect November 19.

Other amendments would change estate tax and alternative minimum tax law, vastly increase ethanol’s guaranteed share of the U.S. motor fuel market, revise visa rules for foreign workers, take action on “puppy mills,” and replace the federal farm program with insurance policies guaranteeing farm income.

A sizable number of amendments were placeholders with text to be provided later.

Written every few years, farm bills are broad-spectrum legislation. The Senate bill would oversee $286 billion in spending over five years on crop subsidies, land stewardship, public nutrition, biofuels and other agriculture programs. Nearly two-thirds of the money would go to nutrition.

Sixty votes are needed in the Senate to cut off debate. There are 49 Republican senators, 49 Democrats and two independents, who routinely side with the Democrats.

Reporting by Charles Abbott; editing by Marguerita Choy