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Cooperation or confusion in lame duck

By Seymour Klierly

The American public voted and the result will be at least two more years of a divided government between the two major political parties. In the Senate, Democrats gained two seats and with the independents caucusing with their party, they now have a larger majority of 55 to 45. In the House of Representatives, Republicans will continue to have a majority in the lower chamber. The two legislative bodies are diverging in control and each side of the Capitol will interpret the results in equally different ways.

In rural states, voters also sent mixed messages. In North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, won the Senate seat despite the state voting overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama. As a reward, Sen.-Elect Heitkamp is said to have been offered one of the open spots on the Senate Agriculture Committee. A similar situation occurred in Montana on election night when Sen. John Tester, D-MT, won reelection over challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg , R-MT, despite the state supporting the Republican candidate for president.

As the dust settles from polling places, Washington will attempt to delve into the country's problems that were shelved before the elections. The official to-do lists for the House of Representatives and the Senate during the lame duck session have addressing the fiscal cliff first in line. While tackling the farm bill is on both lists, it remains unclear how the farm bill will be handled.

Among the paths forward for the farm bill, these appear to be the most likely options (in no particular order):

--The House passing their stand alone bill, leading to a conference between the House and Senate versions;

--Including the farm bill as part of the package to address the fiscal cliff as a "pay for";

--An extension of the current policy for 3, 6, or 12 months; or

--Taking no action until the 113th Congress convenes in January 2013.

One outgoing senator wants to make a fifth option a reality. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND, whose retirement at the end of this session opened the door for Heitkamp to win election, has announced that he has been working on his own farm bill over the recess. While not giving specifics on the proposal, he claims that it will "take some sort of reasonable difference" between the current House and Senate versions. Conrad recently said "time is not on our side" and in regard to next year's budget situation will be "a big mess and it's infinitely better for everyone to get these decisions made now." While Conrad serves on the agriculture committee and also chairs the Senate Budget Committee, his ability to move a new and separate piece of legislation may be too much to carry for an outgoing member this late in the game.

After the American public voted for the status quo in congressional leadership, they may have either paved the way for real compromise and action or just more of the same confusion with Washington.

Editor's note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.

Date: 11/19/2012



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