WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate will not pass the $288 billion farm bill this year unless senators forego amendment on hot-button issues like immigration reform or the war in Iraq, Majority Leader Harry Reid warned on Tuesday.
The bill would create the first-ever program to shield farm income from poor yields as well as low prices, expand food stamp benefits and help develop cellulose, found in grass and wood, as a raw material for fuel ethanol.
Before they could debate the first amendment on the bill — a “hard” cap of $250,000 a year on crop subsidies — senators brought themselves to a standstill over Reid’s plan to allow only relevant amendments on the floor.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill on grounds it raises taxes, wrongly increases supports for dairy and some crops, and fails to reform rules that allow huge subsidies.
“Here’s where we are — the Senate is gridlocked on the farm bill because of the decision to fill the (amendment) tree,” said Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Our farmers are too important to wait until February.”
Reid said he wanted to avoid “mischievous amendments that have nothing to do with the farm bill.” He left open the possibility he would ask a vote next week to shut off debate on the bill and that debate might be deferred to next year.
“Do we want to debate the war in Iraq on the farm bill?” asked the Nevada lawmaker before mentioning other issues that might be offered, such as estate tax rules or immigration.
McConnell said the solution, as with other bills, would be for him and Reid to decide in private on a limited number of amendments that would be put to a vote. An agreement might be possible by Wednesday, said a Senate staff worker.
Sen. Pete Domenici said he would offer an amendment to require use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels annually from 2022. “It’s necessary now to reinvigorate the ethanol industry,” said the New Mexico Republican. The so-called renewable fuels standard now is 7.5 billion gallons.
Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin would support a strong biofuels standard, said an aide to the Iowa Democrat. It would be a significant change in the bill.
To its supporters, the $250,000 subsidy cap is one of the last chances for farm policy reform this year. The other major reform plan would scrap grain, cotton and soybean subsidies and to give farmers government-paid insurance policies that assure they will get 80 or 85 percent of their usual crop revenue.
“What these gentlemen are trying to do is outsource our food and fiber,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, referring to the two sponsors of the $250,000 cap.
Lincoln said the cap would hurt cotton and rice growers in the South far more than the wheat and corn growers of the U.S. Midwest and Plains.
An amalgam of small-farm advocates, fiscal hawks, environmentalists, specialty crop growers, and international development groups pressed earlier this year for wide-scale reform of U.S. farm policy.
But they did not agree on a legislative vehicle, partly because some groups wanted to attack traditional subsidies while others wanted to focus on getting more funding for land stewardship, rural economic development and assistance to fruit, vegetable, nut and nursery crop farmers.