Senate Agrees on Way Forward on Farm Bill

Posted June 18, 2012 at 8:27pm

Senate negotiators stuck a massive amendment deal on the pending farm bill tonight, working through contentious battles on the floor, in the cloakroom and in Capitol corridors to inch closer to potential passage.

Although final Senate approval is far from guaranteed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced a 73-amendment agreement just before 8:30 p.m., hours after Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) could be seen and heard wrangling with rank-and-file Members in the chamber.

The amendment package, which was agreed to by unanimous consent, includes measures both germane and nongermane to the bill. But it wasn’t secured easily.

Stabenow and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) exchanged words on the floor, with Sanders getting red in the face and at one point brushing away Stabenow’s hand within full view of the gallery. The two then took their conversation into the cloakroom, where one source said their exchange was even more heated.

Multiple sources indicated it was amendment-related and a Sanders measure on genetically engineered food was included near the end of the list of announced provisions.

While Stabenow was working Sanders, Roberts was across the chamber talking to several Republicans trying to resolve their outstanding issues. As the two bill managers worked the floor old-school Senate style, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was delivering a speech on the DREAM Act, looking back at Stabenow and Sanders at one point in his remarks because their conversation had gotten so loud.

“Bernie appreciates the leadership of Senator Stabenow on the farm bill. He also believes it is important to recognize that the overwhelming majority of Americans support labeling genetically modified foods,” a Sanders spokesman said in a statement. “He is pleased that there will be a vote on his amendment to let states require straightforward labeling.”

Republicans have long claimed that the $969 billion farm bill extension, required of Congress every five years, would pass if Reid allowed for an open amendment process. This week, they will get the chance to back their words with actions on what Stabenow called on the floor late Monday a “path to final passage” and Reid dubbed a good but not great deal.

The Senate will begin voting on the amendments Tuesday afternoon, with the measures that are relevant to the bill receiving a simple majority approval and nonrelevant provisions subject to a 60-vote bar.

Sources were cautiously optimistic that the Senate will approve a bill that received a bipartisan 16-5 vote out of committee. But it is also clear that certain regional disputes will be tougher to bridge and that even if the Senate does pass the bill, the road to the president’s desk likely will be difficult, if not impossible, with a Republican-controlled House.

For example, the Senate approved a transportation and infrastructure bill in March with 74 votes, but the conference committee tasked with finding a final package is faltering. The House did not come to the table with a comparable bill, failing to produce its own legislation that would have enough votes to pass its chamber.

Moreover, the conservative wing of the House GOP is government-spending averse, and even though the Senate version of the farm bill would shave $23.6 billion from the deficit, it’s likely House Republicans would defect over funding programs such as crop insurance or food stamps.

Because the farm legislation includes deficit savings, some aides had suggested it might be used in negotiations later in the year as an offset. But today, a now-or-never attitude pervaded the Senate side of the Capitol, as aides milled about the hallways just off the chamber, working their cellphones and conferring with each other and with Senators.

Multiple sources familiar with Democratic negotiations said this week would be the do-or-die week for the bill, and the agreement reached later in the evening suggests there is life for legislation that just one week ago seemed to be headed toward a legislative coma.

If and when the Senate wraps work on the farm bill, multiple aides said flood insurance legislation would be taken up next.