AFTER last year's Senate farm bill debate and passage, I had a renewed sense of pride in the way our government works. Bipartisan cooperation between the top two agriculture committee members, in addition to an open debate on many amendments, was a sight to be seen.
This year, with much less lockstep between Republicans and Democrats, I can't say the same.
The farm bill was brought to the Senate floor less than a week after it passed out of committee. However, once it reached the floor, only 13 of the 250 amendments were voted on. Last year, the Senate voted on 73 amendments.
During the first week of debate, Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said she was working with ranking committee member Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) to develop a "finite list" of amendments to bring to the floor. However, only two additional amendments were debated last week, and the duo seems to continue to struggle to find their footing.
The first new amendment, introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), would require a study on evaluating crop insurance for alfalfa. It passed 72-18.
The Senate also held a voice vote on an amendment from Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.) that would slightly boost dollars to buy locally grown food close to needy areas abroad. The amendment calls for $60 million (a $20 million annual increase from the original bill) for the program, which is still only a fraction of the $1.8 billion currently spent on food aid and much less than the food aid overhaul President Barack Obama proposed in his budget this year.
The only other amendment the full Senate is for sure set to vote on is from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.). It would establish a narrow pilot program within the existing Rural Utilities Service Broadband program that is reauthorized under the farm bill to test investment in ultra-high-speed gigabit projects in rural areas.
Reports indicate that Stabenow and Cochran continue to pursue a pared-down list of amendments to the final farm bill, which could come up as a package of amendments to be voted on or agreed to by unanimous consent before final passage on Monday. None of these final amendments is likely to be controversial, though.
The Senate voted last Thursday morning to invoke cloture, which passed 75-22. It was a good test of political will in the Senate to see whether bipartisanship still exists.
All of the 22 nays on the cloture vote were from Republicans, which isn't surprising. However, last year's farm bill co-champion, Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), was against the cloture vote. He also voted against passing the farm bill out of committee because he said it steps away from reform, catering to southern interests with increased target prices.
After a cloture vote, no more than 30 hours of debate may occur, and no amendments may be moved unless they were filed on the day in between the presentation of the petition and the actual cloture vote.
According to Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), the Senate will vote on final passage of the farm bill at 5:30 p.m. (EDT) on Monday.
Passage seems likely in the Senate, but does it have what it takes to get a compromise and final package with the House? That remains to be seen.
The House farm bill debate is expected to begin the week of June 17. Members have started introducing legislation to lay the groundwork for possible amendments, especially in regard to crop insurance limits.