WASHINGTON — A drive to revamp the nation's costly farm subsidies died Friday in the Senate, leaving in place a system widely criticized for being out of step with the modern agriculture economy, for favoring crops with minimal nutritional value and for funneling large federal payouts to wealthy investors.
The Senate's failure to end debate and move to a vote dashed the hopes of a wide coalition of organizations that had worked to ensure this farm bill would improve child nutrition, increase investments in food stamp programs and benefit taxpayers by trimming government subsidies to large corporate farms.
For the first time, the farm bill also would have significantly invested in fruits, nuts and vegetable crops, the mainstay of California agriculture. It would have added more money for alternative energy sources, organic farming and conservation programs. And it would have launched a program to improve school lunch nutrition.
The 55-42 vote, short of the 60 needed, scuttled a bill that had drawn severe criticism for falling far short of reforms Democrats had promised when they took over Congress.
Some lawmakers had hoped to make deeper changes to the bill with an amendment that would have cut billions in subsidies to a few major crops, such as corn and wheat, and steered the funds to a free crop insurance program that covered all farmers.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the agriculture committee, pledged to try to bring the bill back to the Senate floor after lawmakers return from their two-week Thanksgiving break. He said he was optimistic it could be on the president's desk next month, but the Senate faces a full slate of work when it returns, including essential spending bills.
The bill has provoked intense lobbying by agribusiness, nutrition advocates, physicians, conservationists and even religious groups focused on battling hunger.
Advocates pointed out that previous farm bills, which set the nation's farm policy for five-year periods, have been delayed for months by filibusters and political maneuvering, but were eventually signed into law. They added that the impasse gives them more time to raise public awareness about farm bill issues that affect all Americans, not just those in rural areas.
Even so, the bill's failure to survive Friday's procedural vote leaves intact the long-standing system of subsidies at a time when farm incomes are at record highs.
It was the third time this year that partisan conflicts in the Senate have killed a major legislative initiative. The Senate also failed to overhaul immigration laws and rewrite the No Child Left Behind education law.
Friday's procedural vote, which was called to limit debate, broke down almost entirely along partisan lines, with only four Republicans voting to support the bill.
Republicans depicted the failed vote as further evidence of the Democrats' inability to get work done. Democrats, citing repeated Republican filibusters and presidential veto threats, said the GOP was trying to score political points by blocking Democratic achievements.
Harkin cited rumors that the White House, not wanting to be forced to veto the bill, had directed Senate Republicans to oppose it. "Frankly, I worry that there is a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to derail the farm bill," said Harkin, who described himself as "deeply disappointed."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) pointed out that the farm bill had passed unanimously out of the agriculture committee. "This is a Republican strategy to block us from achieving anything for the American people," she said.
For the last two weeks, senators struggled to jump-start debate that had stalled over a disagreement about amendments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wanted to limit debate to amendments that he considered relevant to the $288-billion farm bill.
Republicans and a few Democrats wanted to add amendments that dealt with driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, an alternative minimum tax and renewable fuels.
Republicans bristled at the limits. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said: "Republicans were further disappointed that we were prevented from improving this 1,600-page bill . . . after first being told the farm bill debate would be wide open, as is usual in the Senate.
"I am not sure how the majority defines wide-open debate, but this no-amendments-allowed process clearly does not meet the standard."
Harkin countered that "some of those Republican amendments that have cropped up . . . would kill the bill." Mentioning the immigration amendment, he added: "That's a hot-button issue -- everyone knows it -- but they're willing to stop the farm bill just to have a vote on it."
The existing farm bill expired at the end of September, but the major programs can continue until the 2008 harvest. Subsidies would continue for the major crops: rice, wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans. But funding for other smaller programs, including two conservation programs for wetlands and grasslands, would run out.