WASHINGTON – The Democratic-controlled Senate caved in to a White House veto threat and approved a House-passed package of special farm assistance Friday that provides $2 billion less than Democrats wanted.
The $5.5 billion measure now goes to President Bush, who said he looks forward to signing the bill. "This vote is a victory for our nation's farmers at a time when they need it most," the president said.
The Senate abruptly approved the legislation on a voice vote after Democrats failed to break a Republican filibuster of a $7.5 billion measure that had been approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee.
"The gun was held to our heads and the White House refused to compromise," said the committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. He said the House measure was "totally inadequate to meet the needs of our farmers across the country."
Republicans "wanted to defeat the $7.5 billion, and they did," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
The impasse had threatened to delay final approval of the measure until September, when Congress returns from a monthlong recess that starts this weekend.
The measure is expected to boost net farm income to nearly $48 billion, almost $3 billion over last year.
After meeting with the president Friday, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the farm crisis is ebbing, particularly when it comes to milk, livestock and even grains, where she says there has been a slight increase. Overall for farmers, she said, "There is some easing in the downturn of pricing we've seen in recent years."
This is the fourth straight year that Congress has provided a multibillion-dollar bailout of the farm economy to compensate for low crop prices.
Daschle said Democrats might try to win passage later of the additional $2 billion they wanted.
Without the $5.5 billion in government payments, the Agriculture Department estimates, net farm income this year will fall to $42.4 billion, $2.8 billion below last year.
Senators were in a rush to finish work on the bill because the congressional budget agreement provided $5.5 billion in farm aid for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The money must be distributed to farmers by that date or it can be used for other purposes.
Senate Republican leaders got four major farm groups representing soybean, corn, cotton and wheat growers to sign a letter endorsing the House bill. Otherwise, there was "the very real possibility these budgeted funds will be lost," the letter said.
Democrats gave up the fight for their bill after a move to break the GOP filibuster Friday morning fell 11 votes short of the 60 necessary.
The first $4.6 billion in the bill approved Friday would go to grain and cotton farmers to supplement the fixed annual payments they get from the government.
There's also $423 million in payments to growers of soybeans, sunflowers and other oilseeds; $169 million in grants to states to promote sales of fruits, vegetables and nuts; $129 million for tobacco and additional payments to peanut and wool producers.
The Senate bill contained $5.5 billion for direct payments to grain and cotton farmers, almost $900 million more than the House measure, plus $542 million for conservation programs and $150 million for apple growers.