Frustrated Democrats charged that Republicans are stalling on the Farm Bill after senators failed to agree to a procedural move Thursday night that would end debate and force a vote.

The Senate's action may end hopes that the Senate will finish work this year on a five-year rewrite of farm policy managed by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Under Senate rules, Farm Bill supporters needed 60 votes to end debate, but were only able to round up 53 votes. Four Republicans sided with Democrats.

Harkin said Democrats will continue to hold similar votes throughout next week to try to end the procession of senators offering amendments to the legislation, which would increase farm spending by $73.5 billion over 10 years.

"We are going to finish this bill unless Republicans absolutely stonewall," said Harkin. But he conceded that if Republicans succeed in prolonging discussion with no final vote, "we'll have to come back in January" to finish work on the bill.

Time is running out for enacting a new farm law this year. Whenever the Senate does finally pass its version, it must be reconciled with the vastly different $73.5 billion House bill that covers 10 years instead of the five covered in the Senate version. The final bill will replace the “Freedom to Farm” law, which has been widely criticized for providing scant shelter to producers to weather persistently low grain prices.

However, the White House opposes both the House and Senate versions saying they might spend so much money that they would violate world trade rules. And it specifically opposed the Senate’s plan to raise crop supports on the grounds it would mislead farmers to increase production and further suppress prices.

Supporters in favor of passing a Farm Bill this year say it is a much-needed economic stimulus package for rural America. The stalemate highlights conflicts over the timing of the bill that have been brewing all year. The House passed its version of the legislation in October despite opposition from the Bush administration. The White House urged that work be postponed until next year, when the bill expires.

Some Republican senators have said the Senate should be waiting until next year to work on the bill when the budget picture is clearer. They also say they don't like the approach to farm policy in the Harkin bill.

The Senate did agree earlier Thursday to two amendments aimed at restoring competition to agriculture that were backed by family farm groups. One proposal, approved 64-31, would bar mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts between farmers and packing houses. Another amendment approved 51-46 would keep packers from owning their own livestock.

Des Moines Register, Reuters