A total of 73 senators, including Mississippi’s Trent Lott, voted for the cloture motion and 26 voted against it. Lott, the top Republican in the Senate, earlier had spoken disparagingly of the Senate Ag Committee bill in remarks to reporters off the Senate floor.

“We are very proud of Sen. Lott for putting agriculture above everything else but the Defense Appropriations bill in voting for the cloture motion,” said Ben Lamensdorf, president of the Stoneville, Miss.-based Delta Council. “Sen. Lott split with the Republican leadership and the Bush administration to go to bat for farmers.”

Lott, the Senate Minority Leader, had said that because of the differences in the Senate Ag Committee and House farm bills and opposition from the administration, he thought it would be “virtually impossible” to get a farm bill to President Bush’s desk before the end of the year.

But he put aside those concerns and voted with the majority of the Mid-South’s senators in favor of proceeding with the debate on the bill.

Also voting for the cloture motion were Senators Thad Cochran of Mississippi; Tim Hutchinson and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas; John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana; and Kit Bond and Jean Carnahan of Missouri. Voting against it were Senators Bill Frist and Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Following the cloture action, which required 60 votes for passage, the Senate was expected to take up three judicial nominations and then move to the Defense Appropriations bill.

Debate on S. 1731, which was voted out by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Dec. 16, is expected to begin no later than Tuesday, Dec. 11.

“As late as a week ago, I thought we had about a 20 percent chance of passing a farm bill this year,” said one farm lobbyist. “Now, I’ve moved that up to about a 50 percent chance. It’s amazing what people can do when they decide they want to get something done.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.