WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders scrambled for votes Thursday to push through a broad, five-year farm bill to extend agriculture and nutrition programs amid internal divisions and Republican defections.
More international food aid money and funds to settle racial discrimination claims were just two of the 11th-hour additions Democrats sought to tack onto the multibillion-dollar legislation to corral enough support in their own ranks to push it through over strident objections of Republicans and the Bush administration.
The House planned a final vote Friday.
Leaders touted the bill as an important step toward modernizing farm programs, even though it would leave in place and in some cases increase subsidies to producers of major crops, and contains far less money for conservation and nutrition programs than many Democrats wanted.
Farm-state GOP lawmakers, once strong supporters of the bill, staged a revolt Wednesday against tax increases included to partially fund $4 billion worth of food stamp and other nutrition programs. That left Democrats shopping for more votes in their own party, especially among urban and suburban lawmakers.
They won over Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., with the promise of more funding for an international food aid program. Money to settle USDA racial discrimination claims from the 1990s was offered up to cement support among members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "had to knock some heads together" to scrounge up enough Democratic support, said Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Pelosi already was walking a fine line on the measure, struggling to balance her desire to protect farm-state freshman Democrats who had a strong stake in traditional farm programs with her party's promises to include substantial reforms.
The White House has threatened a veto, saying the legislation doesn't cut farm subsidies enough. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the legislation misses opportunity for reform.
The bill would ban subsidies to farmers whose income averages more than $1 million a year and stop farmers from collecting payments for multiple farm businesses. Still, it includes some $42 billion in subsidies and other assistance to farmers.
An administration proposal would go further, banning subsidies to farmers with incomes averaging $200,000 and imposing stricter payment limits.
Despite leadership efforts to unite the majority, some Democrats were still opposed. A showdown vote was expected on an amendment by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., to scale back subsidies in favor of conservation, aid for specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, and nutrition and rural development programs.
Kind's measure would bar payments to farmers earning an average of $250,000 annually. Its adoption could kill the farm bill, sapping it of vital support among rural lawmakers.
Democrats' late hunt for votes was an unfamiliar scene for a farm bill, which usually has broad appeal across party lines due to strong regional coalitions that spring up around crops rather than ideologies. Up until this week, that was also true of this year's measure.
But Republicans balked when Democrats decided this week to raise money for nutrition programs with a provision by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, to tax certain foreign-owned companies with U.S. subsidiaries.
Farm-state GOP lawmakers called the plan a betrayal, after Peterson had promised not to raise taxes to pay for the agriculture legislation, and joined the Bush administration and the rest of their leaders in opposition to the bill.
With the business community lobbying vigorously against the measure, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wrote Congress on Thursday saying the plan would cost U.S. jobs by disrupting foreign investment and ruining relations with trade partners.
"The tax proposal would raise taxes on foreign investment into the United States, thus discouraging such investment and the resulting job creation. Foreign-owned companies provide, directly and indirectly, millions of jobs in the United States," Paulson wrote to Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, the top Ways and Means Committee Republican.
Doggett said the plan would not affect "legitimate multinational corporations that are not employing a haven to dodge American taxes."
And Democratic leaders denounced Republicans for their sudden reversal, accusing them of caring more about protecting big multinational corporations than the farmers in their districts.
The current farm law expires Sept. 30. The Senate is due to begin its consideration of the legislation in September.