House passes farm bill by wide margin

The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a farm bill with a veto-proof majority, defying President Bush, who says it's too costly and does little to overhaul crop subsidies.

The Senate, which immediately took up debate on the measure, is expected to approve it today before sending it to the White House for Bush's promised veto.

But the legislation was expected to pass the Senate easily, and the 318-106 margin in the House was well above the two-thirds majority needed to override the president. The veto and override votes are expected next week.

"I don't see any way that it is not overridden," said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, one of 100 Republicans who voted for the bill. Latham said he feared the bill would be less to Republicans' liking if renewal of the basic farm law were put off until after the 2008 election, when Democrats are expected to fare well.

The legislation, which is expected to cost $289 billion over five years, increases spending for farmers and food stamps for the poor, as well as special projects that lawmakers can bring home to voters this election year. Two-thirds of the spending would go to food stamps and other nutrition programs.

Farmers, particularly those in California, would reap a bonanza from first-time government spending on "specialty crops" — fruits, vegetables, nuts and nursery products, which account for about half the country's crop value. The measure maintains the current system of subsidies for corn and wheat farmers and adds new options for the way farmers get the aid. The bill increases spending for land conservation and biofuel development.

Bush said the bill didn't do enough to restrict subsidies to millionaires — couples making as much as $2.5 million a year could continue to qualify for payments — at a time when prices of corn and other crops are at record levels.

The bill "continues to balance subsidy payments to the wealthy on the backs of the middle-class taxpayer," said Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer. Net farm income is expected to hit $92.3 billion this year, 51% above the average for the past decade.

"The president is right, we ought not to be giving taxpayer subsidies to wealthy individuals at a time of record high prices in the marketplace," said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who has led a failed effort to slash crop subsidies and shift the money to conservation work.

But other Democrats and many farm-state Republicans argued that the bill makes critical improvements to farm programs and provides nutrition assistance that was badly needed by low-income Americans. "We all want the loaf of bread, but sometimes we take a few slices," Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, said of the legislation.

Contributing: The Associated Press