Senate leaders appeared to be edging closer to an agreement on the number of amendments that could be offered for the new farm bill as Congress returned to Washington from its Thanksgiving break.

But negotiators were still trying to iron out last-minute differences on what Democrats were calling “non-relevant” amendments that kept the Senate from deliberating the new legislation for most of the month of November.

While press reports had Senate leaders agreeing to a plan in which five amendments could be offered by Democrats and 10 by Republicans, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and their staffs were still working on those numbers at press time.

“Chairman Harkin certainly hopes to get the farm bill back on the Senate floor next week (the week of Dec. 3), and an agreement to limit amendments to between five and 10 per side would allow passage within a few days,” said a spokesman for Harkin’s office Thursday (Nov. 29).

“Party leaders will need to determine which non-relevant amendments can be debated and voted on, but the chairman will do everything in his power, working closely with Ranking Member Chambliss, to speed completion of this important bill.”

The current stalemate began Nov. 5 when Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced he was asking senators to limit amendments to those that were “germane” to the farm bill so the Senate could finish its calendar for the year.

Republican senators, such as Pete Domenici of New Mexico, who wanted to introduce a renewable fuel standard amendment to the farm bill’s energy title, said Reid was trying to stifle debate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky agreed and Republicans began a series of filibusters against the farm bill.

Meanwhile, the list of potential amendments has grown from a few dealing with such issues as fixing the alternative minimum tax and eliminating the estate tax to more than 270. Reid probably will allow consideration of the former once the Senate begins debate, observers say.

Farm organizations have been urging Senate leaders to put aside their differences and complete action on the $288-billion farm bill so a House-Senate conference committee can get to work on reconciling the differences between the Senate bill and the bill passed by the House back in July.

In a letter signed by 19 groups, including the American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association, the National Cotton Council and the USA Rice Federation, the organizations said they were disappointed in the Senate’s lack of progress on the legislation.

“We respectfully urge you to agree on a process for completing the 2007 farm bill before the end of this year that reflects the broad and bipartisan support for new farm legislation,” the letter said. “The Senate Agriculture Committee’s farm bill has broad support throughout U.S. agriculture and rural America and in the nutrition, conservation and energy communities.”

The letter demonstrates the change in farm bill sentiment House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and others have noted among farm and interest group constituents in recent months.

Although several of the groups signing the letter initially favored an extension of the 2002 farm bill, they said they now prefer enacting new farm legislation to keeping the current law.

With the 2007 farm bill’s baseline “already substantially lower than previous years, extending current law could also result in a substantial reduction in the funding available for writing the next farm bill,” the letter said. “A further reduction would only make writing new legislation that much harder.”

Most farm leaders believe the Senate holds the trump card on the farm bill. Chairman Peterson has said he believes a House-Senate conference committee can resolve most of the differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill — once the Senate passes the measure.

“I think about 75 percent of this stuff could be worked out fairly easily by the time we come back here in January, assuming the Senate passes the bill in December,” Peterson told reporters. “And I think the rest of it could be worked out in a week or so.”

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm organization, said he was cautiously optimistic about the chances of the bill clearing the Senate and going to a conference committee.

If the process drags into 2008, it would not be the first time Congress completed work on a farm bill a year after it was scheduled. Both the 1996 and 2002 farm bills would have been dated a year earlier if Congress had finished work on them in the year in which it started.

One of the amendments that is almost certain to be allowed is one dealing with payment limits that is expected to be introduced by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. The measure would put a “hard cap” of $250,000 on payments to individual farmers and their spouses.

The Senate passed a similar amendment to the 2002 farm bill, but the language was removed from the bill at the insistence of House negotiators during the conference committee deliberations.

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