Senate passes veto-proof farm bill

Congress poised to override President Bush for only the second time.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With only 15 dissenting votes, the Senate passed a $307 billion five-year farm bill that President Bush says he will veto.

But with 81 senators supporting it and Wednesday's 318-106 vote for the final version of the bill, Congress has more than the two-thirds majority to override that veto. If the president vetoes the bill, as expected, it would be only the second override of the Bush presidency. Last December, Congress voted to override a presidential veto of a $23 billion water-projects bill.

In the Senate, many Republicans said they had to part ways with the president.

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"I'm disgusted with aspects of this bill, but I had no choice. North Carolina is the third largest agricultural state in the country," said Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina after the vote.

The omnibus bill, dubbed the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, covers a vast range of federal agricultural policy, including farm support, trade policy, marketing, nutritional programs, and rural development. At a time when food prices are soaring, the prospect of billions in subsidies to farmers could have been a tough sell. But anticipating a fight, supporters made several key moves to bolster passage of the huge bill.

They cut traditional crop insurance programs by $3.8 billion and increased spending on nutrition ($10.3 billion), conservation ($2.7 billion), and energy programs ($600 million). The bill increases the minimum monthly benefit for food stamps and indexes household asset limits, lifts the cap on child care deductibility. Nearly two-thirds of all spending in the new bill is for nutrition programs.

"This additional funding will help stop the erosion of food stamp benefits, and increase the Emergency Food Assistance Program so that food banks can restock their shelves," said Kansas state Sen. Steve Morris, who chairs the farm bill working group for the National Conference of State Legislators, in a statement after the vote.

In the end, more than 500 groups lobbied for this bill, including hunger, religious, and conservation groups. "I've never seen such a broad coalition in support of this bill, but the president wants to veto it," says Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

The White House says reforms to traditional crop-subsidy programs, including subsidies to the wealthiest farmers, didn't go far enough.

"At a time of record farm income and rising food prices, Congress has failed to reform our farm policy. Instead, they have asked the American taxpayer to pay more in subsidies for wealthy farmers," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel after Thursday's Senate vote. "This bloated bill includes special interest earmarks and uses budget gimmicks to hide massive new spending. The president will veto it."

Although a majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted against the White House, Senator Burr says the threat of a presidential veto did have an influence on the final product. For example, the White House called for a cap on the adjusted gross income of $200,000 for farmers to qualify for subsidy payments, down from $2.5 million in the 2002 farm bill. Congress voted for a cap of $750,000 in farm income per individual and $1.5 million for a couple. The eligibility limit for nonfarm income is $500,000 per individual.

But critics note that that is not a hard cap: There are other farm-program benefits that these individuals are eligible to receive. "We think that it's great when farmers are successful, but at some point they should graduate from farm subsidies," said Mr. Stanzel, the White House spokesman.

The bill also reworks the nation's disaster-relief policy by creating a permanent disaster program. Currently, ranchers and farmers have to wait several years before receiving assistance after droughts or flood – typically, after Congress passes ad hoc disaster programs. The proposed $3.8 billion Disaster Trust Fund aims to provide more timely payments after weather-related events.

In the end, 13 Senate Republicans and two Democrats, Rhode Island Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, voted against the bill, citing the cost to taxpayers and the absence of meaningful reform.

"This farm bill continues a set of antiquated programs that send a majority of payments only to farmers earning over $200,000 a year," said Sen. Richard Lugar, a former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "While it is true that subsidies are only part of the overall bill, Congress should not accept these outmoded policies in order to move along other priorities. The fiscal, food and trade policy costs are too great and too damaging."

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