By DONNA CASSATAAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Democrats launched two ads in North Dakota on Tuesday criticizing Republican Senate candidate Rick Berg over the stalled farm bill as the party seeks to capitalize on rural voters' frustration with congressional inaction.
Congress left town last weekend with the five-year, nearly $500 billion farm and food bill, in limbo. The House Republican leadership declined to bring a bill to the House floor, contending that they did not have the votes to pass it. That has created a political headache for Republican candidates in states that count farming and ranching as top industries, such as North Dakota, Montana, Iowa and South Dakota.
In one of the new ads, newspaper headlines about the stalled bill and Berg's votes for the House budget that would cut $180 billion from farm programs are superimposed on water towers and the side of a red barn. North Dakota residents assail Berg and offer testimonials for his Democratic rival, Heidi Heitkamp, in the open seat race.
"We don't vote the party line, we vote for who we feel will do the best for us," Judi Hintz of Tappen, N.D., says in the commercial. "Heidi will get past the politics and get things done for North Dakota."
In a second spot, Les Franklund of Bismark, N.D., says Berg is "not thinking about my farm or my family." The ads, which are expected to air for at least a week, are part of the Democrats' $3 million-plus buy in North Dakota.
In response, the Berg campaign cited the congressman's repeated pleas to the leadership to move on the bill.
"I refuse to sit back and watch our farmers and ranchers face uncertainty while Washington plays political games," Berg said in a statement in early August when he raised the prospect of various procedural maneuvers to force a vote.
The congressman along with several of his House Republican colleagues had asked Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other leaders to bring legislation to the floor before Congress adjourned last weekend.
The Senate passed its version of the bill in June, and the House Agriculture Committee approved a similar version in July.
But the House Republican leadership declined to act. A key factor was the food stamp program, which costs nearly $80 billion a year, or 80 percent of all the spending in the bill. House conservatives say the committee's decision to trim that budget by about 2 percent was too small, while some Democrats said any cuts to the food stamp program were unacceptable.
And while both the House and Senate take major steps to reform farm subsidy programs, some conservatives say farmers still receive too much federal aid.
North Dakota is a Republican-leaning state that is expected to go heavily for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But Heitkamp is locked in a close race with Berg for the seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad.
Farmers and ranchers also appear in a Republican ad in the Montana Senate race between incumbent Democrat Jon Tester and GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign is airing a spot with rancher Turk Stovall, who expresses concern that the death of his father will mean the loss of the family ranch because of the estate tax.
The spot cites a March 23, 2007 vote that Tester cast against Sen. Jim DeMint's amendment to repeal the tax. Stovall says he can't understand Tester's vote and wonders whether the Democrat was voting with his party. One of the final images in the spot is Tester with President Barack Obama.
The federal estate tax reaches fewer than 1 percent of inheritances. The top tax rate is 35 percent but it exempts the first $5 million of an individual's estate; couples can exempt $10 million.
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