Senate Passes More Restrictive Farm Bill

The Senate passed a subsidy-rich farm bill Wednesday that increases support for grain and cotton farmers and creates subsidies for a whole new set of commodities, from milk and honey to wool and lentils.

The bill is "a tremendous victory for the economy of rural America," Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said.

But unlike a House version, the Senate bill puts strict limits on how much money any one farm can receive, capping total subsidies at $275,000 where no caps existed before.

The bill, which passed on a 58-40 vote, also doubles conservation programs.

President Bush, however, was opposed to the bill, and administration officials complained that the bill is too costly and would encourage farmers to grow way too much of the subsidized crops, which might then be left to rot in the fields.

Last week, Bush urged lawmakers not to spend too much of the 10-year $73.5 billion set aside in the first half of the program's life, and said that if they do, Congress would be forced to slash programs or increase spending in 2007.

"This bill front-loads spending into the first five years, leaving vital programs under-funded in the years that follow," President Bush said in a written statement after the vote. "I look forward to working with Conferees to produce a plan that will benefit farmers in the long-term by encouraging conservation, establishing farm savings accounts, and promoting open markets and new opportunities for producers."

It's hard to tell exactly what the final legislation will look like. House and Senate negotiators will pound out the final version of the bill in coming weeks, with input from the White House.

It's clear why the Republican administration might have problems with both bills. Both the House and Senate versions are drastically different from the Republican-authored 1996 farm law, which was designed to wean farmers from government subsidies.

The Senate bill "creates incentives for overproduction by making larger payments to a few big farms, thus guaranteeing overall lower prices for farm commodities and perpetual calls for more assistance by federal lawmakers," complained Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

There are plenty of other thorny issues for House and Senate negotiators to resolve, including how much to spend and when to stop paying.

On Tuesday, the Senate added an item to the bill to protect endangered fish. That program would use subsidies to encourage farmers to use less irrigation water.

Opponents of the program want the federal government to stay out of disputes over water usage and endangered species. The American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest farm group, said the program would eventually burden farmers with yet more regulations.

Despite the critics, the Senate approved it on a 55-45 vote, but with a condition. Because of the opposition, the $1 billion program was restricted to seven states — Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington.

"All the other states will be fighting to get in" the water conservation program once they see the benefits, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted.

The legislation boosts spending on food stamps and other nutrition programs by more than $800 million a year, twice the level of the House bill. Legal immigrants who have lived in the country at least five years would become eligible for food stamps under the Senate measure.

The Senate also refused to back off a ban on meatpackers owning their own supplies of livestock. Packers, who would have up to 18 months to sell off any livestock that they own, said the restrictions make it harder for them to procure adequate supplies of top-quality meat.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.