Washington Senate Democrats failed Friday to break an impasse that has stalled action on a five-year, $286 billion farm bill, increasing the possibility that the legislation could be delayed until next year.
The 55 to 42 vote to end the deadlock fell short of the 60-vote majority needed. Four Republicans, including two facing election challenges next year, joined a solid bloc of Democrats seeking to force Senate consideration of the huge measure.
Democrats vowed to take up the bill next month after Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess. "This is just the first round," said Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "We'll get it done."
But with the bill apparently caught up in pre-election political maneuvering unrelated to agricultural issues - and in a broader veto struggle with the White House - the outlook is uncertain.
On Thursday, a group of House Republicans proposed extending the current farm bill for a year, postponing further consideration of the new legislation until after the 2008 election. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., called such a move "premature."
The House passed its version of the bill in July. Peterson said he is still optimistic that a deal on a farm bill can be reached by early next year. The Senate took up the bill Nov. 5, but it quickly became mired in procedural problems.
The immediate cause of the deadlock has been the insistence of Senate Republicans on their right to introduce a series of politically explosive tax and immigration amendments that Democrats deem not relevant. Harkin said Friday that these include changes in the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax, and a ban on issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
"They want a political hot-button issue they can take into the campaign," Harkin said.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., denied that the deadlock is the fault of Republicans. Democratic leaders, he said, are ignoring the Senate's tradition of open debate and are asserting an extraordinary right to pick and choose what amendments will be allowed.
The Senate bill provides new benefits for sugar, dairy, wheat, oat and honey interests, as well as new revenue protections sought by corn growers. Nutrition programs, such as food stamps, account for nearly two-thirds of the spending in the bill. The asset threshold has been raised for food stamp recipients, and there is increased funding for wildlife and watershed protection, biofuels research, and incentives for fruit and vegetable growers.