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It’s Farm Bill Time, and Pork Is on the Menu

Fresh off their successful defeat of the “hippie museum” project backed by New York Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senate conservatives have begun the tedious process of scouring the chamber’s $280 billion farm bill for provisions they can use to lampoon the earmarking process and hopefully pull from the bill. [IMGCAP(1)]

Following what supporters have come to call the “Bridge to Nowhere strategy” — named after a pricey earmark backed by Alaska’s delegation that has become the butt of late-night jokes and the poster child for Congressional reform — conservatives said they hope to have a series of votes on questionable items ready by next week.

For anyone who’s been around the legislative block a term or two in the Senate, it’s a familiar story line.

“Every five years, there are two stories on the farm bill. First there’s the pork story, and then there’s the pork story,” a Democratic leadership aide joked, adding that this year also will feature the standard farm bill subplot of urban lawmakers versus rural.

The farm bill is “weird in that it doesn’t line up like most things around here … it doesn’t go along partisan lines, it lines up along regional lines.”

A GOP leadership aide agreed, noting that “there’s a lot of regional issues. A lot,” and that as a result, neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) nor Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are expected to whip their Members on the bill. “There’s a lot of bipartisan support and opposition for different parts of the bill, so it’s tough to do whip checks,” the aide said.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) will pit the Midwest against the South with their amendment to cap subsidy payments in an effort to prevent large agribusinesses from benefiting from the government’s largess.

Though a significant portion of the Senate could gang up on Southern cotton and rice growers who Grassley and Dorgan think get too much money, Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) could make passage difficult and going to conference even more difficult. In other words, he could attempt to filibuster both and is likely to do so if the amendment is adopted.

Chambliss could end up acting as a bellwether, particularly for many Republican lawmakers. Because he comes from a largely rural, Southern area and holds the Agriculture slot, lawmakers who don’t fall into the standard urban or rural camps could look to him for guidance on the bill, both on the payment cap issue and the broader bill. “Where he goes, I suspect a lot of people will follow,” the GOP leadership aide said.

More broadly, supporters likely will see odd alliances on the floor, with urban Democratic Members potentially teaming up with the GOP’s conservative wing on a series of votes challenging specific earmarks in the bill.

Though they have yet to put together a firm list of provisions to target, conservatives such as Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) are likely to make hay out of a number of earmarks that appear ripe for lampooning.

For instance, the bill includes language directing the secretary of Agriculture to “establish artisanal cheese centers to provide educational and technical assistance relating to the manufacture and marketing of artisanal cheese by small and medium-sized producers and businesses.” The earmark includes an open-ended funding authorization. Likewise, the bill includes a “Historic Barn” provision to identify and rehabilitate old barns across the country, as well as funding for a “Chinese Garden” project at the National Arboretum.

Meanwhile, farm bill supporters on both sides of the aisle are likely to join forces to block any amendment that provides a temporary worker program for immigrant agricultural workers.

“It’s a total poison pill. It will sink the thing,” said one Senate GOP aide. “There are too many guys [on the Agriculture Committee] who don’t want to see the bill go down.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would be the sponsor of the “Ag Jobs” amendment, but it’s unclear whether she actually will offer the proposal. An aide to Feinstein said that while the California lawmaker has not yet formally decided to push an Ag Jobs amendment, “she’s committed to doing Ag Jobs this year” and that “her only recourse [may be] the farm bill.”

Although Reid has penciled in the farm bill fight to begin on Monday and has indicated he’ll take two weeks to work through the bill, it is unclear whether that will be enough time to finish the bill or whether other issues will force a schedule shuffle. As with any $280 billion measure, expect plenty of amendments to move the money around — from commodity programs and into food stamps or conservation, for example. Additionally, farm-state lawmakers likely will look to include provisions favoring specialty farmers or other sectors in their states that did not make the committee cut. Conservatives also could decide to dig deep into their bag of procedural tricks to tie up the floor over the bill if they find the level of spending or earmarking too objectionable.

Reid also faces a number of other procedural realities, most importantly the fact that the Senate will have to pass a new continuing resolution by the end of the second week now scheduled for the farm bill, as well as some kind of an extension for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Republicans also are expected to make a major push to pass the veterans’ spending measure by the end of that week — which lands just shy of Veterans Day. Democrats could be hesitant to spend time on the farm bill while the veterans bill is outstanding, particularly if the GOP push gains public traction.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s gonna come on and get crunched up at the end of that second week. I don’t know how they’re going to do it,” a GOP leadership aide noted.

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