WASHINGTON – The House passed a $290 billion farm bill Wednesday with a strong veto-proof majority, offering more subsidies for farmers, food stamps for the poor and special projects that lawmakers can bring home to voters this election year.
The 318-106 vote for the five-year bill came despite President Bush's promised veto. He says the measure is too expensive and gives too much money to wealthy farmers.
About two-thirds of the bill would pay for nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. An additional $40 billion is for farm subsidies while almost $30 billion would go to farmers to idle their land and to other environmental programs.
Senators planned to begin debating the bill later Wednesday. A rejection of a Bush veto may be even easier in the Senate, where farm states have greater representation than they do in the House. Congress has only overridden one veto, on a water projects bill, during Bush's two terms.
This measure is not perfect, said the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who believes it is balanced. "We've put a bill together that I think addresses what people are concerned about in this country," said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Republicans, however, criticized the mostly bipartisan and popular bill because home-state projects added in an election year. The bill includes tax breaks for Kentucky racehorse owners, extra help for farmers in Hawaii and Alaska, and dollars for salmon fishermen in the Pacific Northwest.
"This bill has been under consideration for a long, long time, and yet still we have earmarks that have been 'air dropped' into the legislation," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Ahead of the House veto, Bush made his objections clear, noting that married farmers who make up to $1.5 million still could collect subsidies under the new farm bill. "I believe doing so at a time of record farm income is irresponsible and jeopardizes America's support for necessary farm programs," Bush said.
The bill also would:
—Boost nutrition programs, including food stamps and emergency domestic food aid, by more than $10 billion over 10 years. It would expand a program to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren.
—Increase subsidies for certain crops, including fruits and vegetables excluded from previous farm bills.
—Extend dairy programs.
—Increase loan rates for sugar producers.
—Urge the government to buy surplus sugar and sell it to ethanol producers for use in a mixture with corn.
—Cut a per-gallon ethanol tax credit for refiners from 51 cents to 45 cent. The credit supports the blending of fuel with the corn-based additive. More money would go to cellulosic ethanol, made from plant matter.
—Require that meats and other fresh foods carry labels with their country of origin.
—Stop allowing farmers to collect subsidies for multiple farm businesses.
—Reopen a major discrimination case against the Agriculture Department. Thousands of black farmers who missed a deadline would get a chance to file claims alleging they were denied loans or other subsidies.
—Pay farmers for weather-related farm losses from a new $3.8 billion disaster relief fund.
Congressional negotiators tried for weeks to come closer to the White House on the amount of money paid to wealthy farmers — one of the chief sticking points with the administration.
The legislation would make small cuts to direct payments, which are distributed to some farmers no matter how much they grow. The farm bill also would eliminate some federal payments to individuals with more than $750,000 in annual farm income — or married farmers who make more than $1.5 million.
Individuals who make more than $500,000 or couples who make more than $1 million jointly in nonfarm income also would not eligible for subsidies.
Under current law, there is no income limit for farmers, and married couples who make less than one-fourth of their income from farming will not receive subsidies if their joint income exceeds $5 million.
The administration originally proposed a cap for those who make more than $200,000 in annual gross income, but later indicated it could accept a limit of $500,000. Previously, negotiators were considering a $950,000 income cap on farm income.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday that she is not satisfied that the bill does enough to reduce subsidies. But she said the legislation was an important first step and praised the nutrition sections.
"If there is one reason for you to vote for this bill, it would be because of the nutrition piece of it," she said.
The Senate Agriculture Committee put the bill's final cost at $290 billion over five years, based on figures compiled this week by congressional budget experts. The bill had been estimated at around $300 billion.