Dirt Road Prayer: The Farm Bill’s Path through the Senate

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

The road ahead is increasingly bumpy, but the Farm Bill continues to lurch forward, one pothole at a time.

After clearing a procedural hurdle last week, the Senate officially began consideration of the bill on Monday, setting the stage for a time-honored Senate practice–the filing, consideration, and disposition of amendments.

Under normal Senate rules, senators are free to offer as many amendments as they wish on any topic under the sun, and to demand a vote on them. Since disposing of amendments this way would be impractical–debating and voting on the hundreds of amendments offered to most Senate measures could take months–party leaders and bill managers attempt to negotiate a more efficient path forward. Some amendments are modified and incorporated into the legislation, some are set aside to be addressed at a later date, and many are withdrawn altogether, all in the interest of comity and compromise.

If a few senators put up a fight (nearly everything in the Senate requires the unanimous consent of all 100 members), 60 senators can vote to invoke “cloture,” limiting remaining debate and amendments, and forcing an eventual up-or-down vote on the measure.

Such is the procedural backdrop against which the Senate is currently debating the Farm Bill. Here are a few things you should know about the current state of play, and how things might develop in the coming days and weeks:

  • Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 amendments have been filed to the bill so far. Some of these relate to substantive concerns about the legislation, but many do not .
  • Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas)–Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee–are working with their respective party leaders and members to reach an agreement on which amendments require votes, which can be accommodated without a vote, and which can be set aside.
  • By far the toughest nut to crack is on the Republican side, where it has been reported that certain senators–e.g., Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky)–are demanding votes on problematic amendments in return for their consent to move the process forward.
  • Should those negotiations fail, it will be up to Majority Leader Harry Reid to determine whether he can secure the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and bring debate to a close. Attempting to do so without being sure of the outcome is a risky gambit, because a failed vote would likely signal the bill’s demise.
  • Internal Republican politics are casting a shadow over the entire debate. With the prospect of the bill’s passage in the House even less certain, many Senate Republicans would just as soon avoid creating a political problem for themselves and their House brethren by taking a tough vote to leave yet another thorny piece of legislation on House Speaker John Boehner’s doorstep.

Despite these complicated dynamics and daunting challenges, the Farm Bill has lived to fight another week. And in a political environment where the assumption is that no significant legislation has a chance of passage, that simple fact proves the bill’s odd resilience.

Built on unorthodox regional and political alliances and propelled by a desire in both parties to champion the cause of rural communities, the rickety legislative wagon rolls on, hoping to stay ahead of the gathering storm.

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