Senate Republican leaders agreed Saturday to allow speedy consideration this week of legislation that would expand emergency government aid to debt-ridden farmers, ending a rancorous four-day Democratic filibuster that had blocked the confirmation of Atty. Gen.-designate Edwin Meese III.
The compromise came only hours after President Reagan had said in his weekly radio address that the federal government already had offered “a tremendous amount of assistance (to farmers). It’s time for others to pitch in and do more.”
Plan Called Inadequate
However, farm-state Democrats repeated contentions that Reagan Administration agricultural-relief proposals, including an emergency package announced Friday by Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, are inadequate and too cumbersome to rescue thousands of debt-ridden farmers who cannot gather the cash they will need soon to do their spring planting.
“In recent days, we’ve heard a lot about the Administration’s supposed willingness to provide extra help to get farmers through the next few critical weeks. But, at best, that help applies only a Band-Aid to agriculture’s problems,” Sen. Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska, one of the leaders of the filibuster, said in the Democratic response to Reagan’s speech.
Thus, forces have gathered for what promises to be a prolonged battle over national farm policy--both helping farmers through an immediate credit crisis and, in the longer term, overhauling a complicated system of government subsidies that has been severely criticized by many.
Senators, weary and irritable from almost round-the-clock partisan squabbling that began Wednesday, finally agreed to allow each party to propose up to four agriculture-related amendments to a popular bill providing money for African famine relief, which is expected to go before the Senate on Monday. Each proposal will be put to the test of a full Senate vote.
“By holding up Ed Meese one week, which did not hurt him or the Administration one bit, we have begun to take some steps for agriculture,” said Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), another filibuster leader. However, he did not detail any of the measures that Democrats will propose, saying only that they hope to “further ease the restrictions on credit, find some way to pump some cash flow into the system” and lower interest rates.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, said in an interview that he has been assured that one of the four Democratic proposals will be a measure sought by California growers and banks, who are suffering financially but who have not been hit as hard as farmers in other states.
Although some senators have suggested offering $3 billion in government loan guarantees to banks that would rewrite 90% of each qualifying farmer’s loan at lower interest rates, Cranston would lower the guaranteed amount of each loan to only 20%. That would spread the aid thinner but make the $3-billion pool of guarantees available to more individuals.
Another proposal that may be advanced by Senate Democrats is one modeled after a bill approved last week by the Democratic-controlled House Agriculture Committee. That bill would combine loan guarantees with direct loans to farmers of up to 50% of the value of the crops they now have in the ground, money they otherwise would not see until harvest.
House Version Called Costly
The Administration has said the House proposal, authored by Rep. Tom A. Daschle (D-S.D.), could cost as much as $9 billion if a high percentage of farmers default on the loans. Daschle conceded that the proposal is not perfect, but said: “As a one-time, short-term credit option, it seems to be the best one we have available.”
The Administration’s package, he countered, is merely “another cosmetic throwaway . . . . Not one additional farmer will be helped.” The White House package essentially fine-tunes an earlier plan, under which it offered $650 million in loan guarantees. Farmers and lenders had complained that only a handful of them could meet the financial tests required to take advantage of the program.
In his radio address, Reagan said: “Our program will ease further the farmers’ requirement for participation in it, so more of them can take advantage of our credit offer . . . . But American taxpayers must not be asked to bail out every farmer hopelessly in debt, some by hundreds of thousands of dollars, or be asked to bail out the banks who also bet on higher inflation.”
Further assistance to farmers, he said, should come from state governments, banks and private groups and individuals.
Seen as Test for Dole
In a broader sense, the Senate’s partisan conflict over agriculture was seen as the first test for new Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) in handling the Democratic minority that hopes to regain control in the 1986 election. In the end, it came down to a scrap over whether Dole--himself facing re-election in heavily agricultural Kansas--or the Democrats would determine the conditions and timing of bringing the agricultural proposals to the floor.
“The point before us is who is going to run the show--the majority leader, or a group over there,” Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) said during the debate, indicating the Democratic side of the Senate chamber. “This is just a start . . . . This is going to come up time and time and time again.”
After the battle, Dole dismissed the idea that this fight was a trial of his leadership, saying that it was merely a “preliminary bout.” Alluding to the fiscal 1986 budget, he said: “We haven’t gotten to the main event yet around here.”
But he added that if Republicans had given in to initial Democratic demands to debate more than a dozen farm proposals, “somebody else might be setting the agenda.”