It sounded too good to be true, and it was. The Senate Agriculture Committee was scheduled to meet shortly after the Senate Finance Committee passed its $16-billion agricultural tax package to consider a new farm bill.
But a few hours before the finance committee's mark-up session Oct. 4, staff members sent an e-mail advising reporters the ag committee session scheduled for the same afternoon had been postponed until after Congress returned from the Columbus Day recess.
Why another delay? The reasons are many, but Washington observers say the biggest one is Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin nor anyone else has been able to force committee members to agree on the new bill.
A committee spokesman said many senators who would be needed for a vote on the farm bill were already leaving Washington when the committee meeting was scheduled Thursday night. “Rather than starting something we knew we couldn't finish, we decided to hold off,” she said.
Earlier in the week, Harkin said he thought the finance committee's tax package would provide about $9 billion in new farm bill funding — $4 billion to $5 billion for a permanent disaster program and $3 billion to $4 billion for conservation, rural development, energy and specialty crop programs.
The disaster program was not at the top of Harkin's priorities — he's said the program would mainly help farmers in three or four states. Two are Montana and North Dakota, whose senators include Max Baucus, the finance committee chairman, and Kent Conrad, who chairs the budget committee.
Other senators — Democrats and Republicans — have balked at cuts in direct payments and the $250,000 payment limit proposal authored by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
In his weekly press conference, Harkin said he considers the permanent disaster relief program separate from the revenue counter-cyclical program sponsored by Sens. Dick Durban, D-Ill., and Sherrod Brown, D-Pa.
The problem: Harkin needs new funding to increase enrollments in the Conservation Security and other environmental and energy programs. Some of that will come from internal savings put together by the ag committee.
But a large portion will have to come from the finance committee tax package. Some of Harkin's chaffing at the situation slipped through when a reporter asked him where the finance committee funding would come from? “That's up to the finance committee,” he said. “That's their end of the deal. My end of the deal is to decide where to spend it.”
That may not be entirely true. Grassley, the finance committee ranking member, has said if the finance committee comes up with the money, the finance committee ought to say where it will be spent.
For now, four or maybe five senators appear to be trying to run the farm bill show. What seems to be lacking is a Speaker Nancy Pelosi to knock some heads together as she did when the House was going through a similar battle two months ago.