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 groups that had worked to make sure this farm bill would improve child nutrition, increase investments in food stamp programs and benefit taxpayers by trimming government subsidies to corporate farms.

The farm bill also would have significantly invested in fruits, nuts and vegetable crops for the first time. 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 in all 50 states.

The 55-42 vote, short of the 60 votes needed, scuttled a bill that had also drawn severe criticism for falling far short of reforms Democrats had promised.

Some lawmakers had hoped to make even deeper changes to the bill with an amendment that would have cut billions in subsidies to a few major crops 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 recess.

Advocates pointed out that previous farm bills, which set the nation’s farm policy for five-year periods, were delayed for months by political maneuvering, but eventually were signed into law.

The bill’s failure to survive Friday’s procedural vote leaves intact the system of subsidies at a time when farm incomes are at record highs.

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, pointing to repeated Republican filibusters and presidential veto threats, said the GOP was trying to score political points by blocking Democratic achievements.

“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. Deborah Stabenow, D-Mich., said 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 charged.

For the past two weeks, senators had 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, the alternative minimum tax and renewable fuels. Republicans bristled at the limits.

“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,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “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 smaller programs, including two conservation programs for wetlands and grasslands, would run out of funds.

There is a strong incentive for lawmakers to act by 2008. If a new bill is not passed by the 2008 harvest, funding reverts to levels set in the “permanent law,” which was written in 1949. That would drastically boost subsidies for crops supported at the time, such as cotton and wheat, but crops added later, such as rice, would no longer be eligible for support.

Some House Republicans have pushed to extend the 2002 Farm Bill, a move that would be strenuously opposed by advocates for programs that would receive new funds in the 2007 bill. Alternative energy, as well as fruit and vegetable crops would receive significant funding in this year’s bill. It would also expand the food stamp program to meet rising levels of hunger in the United States. Physicians have strongly supported one program that would be radically expanded to put fresh fruit and vegetables into all elementary schools, arguing that it would help fight growing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes.

Once the 2007 bill was on the floor, taxpayer groups and other advocates had hoped to target the subsidies in the Senate bill, which continue at past levels and even increase for some crops. The bill would pay about $42 billion dollars to farmers when average farm incomes are about $80,000, a third higher than the national average.

Many now say that with the farm bill debate at a standstill, they can use the time to drum up further awareness of the issues.

“I think a broader segment of the public has focused on the bill this time,” said Sara Hopper, an attorney with Environmental Defense. “That critical focus has increased significantly, editorial pages across the country have pushed for more equitable farm policy, and I think that will help us. We still have an opportunity.”

AP-NY-11-16-07 2157EST

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