WASHINGTON — A White House veto threat and Republican anti-tax sentiment complicate passage of a $286 billion farm bill that's set for debate in the House of Representatives on Thursday.
The fruit and vegetable industry, mainstream agricultural groups and many rural lawmakers still embrace the sprawling legislation. The burgeoning GOP resistance, however, indicates that the House Agriculture Committee's bill will inevitably change in coming months.
"We believe the bill put forth by the committee misses a major opportunity," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Wednesday.
Echoing Johanns, the White House Office of Management and Budget cited various budget "gimmicks," revenue provisions and subsidy policies in recommending a presidential veto. Until now, the administration has blended more gently worded critiques with praise for what Johanns last week termed "very encouraging" work.
The bill largely retains subsidies for crops such as cotton, rice, wheat and corn. It boosts spending for specialty crops to $1.7 billion over five years, a record amount for the fruits and vegetables that historically have received scant federal support.
The debate, scheduled to last all day and much of the night Thursday, is likely to include consideration of several dozen amendments, selected from more than 100 authored by House members. Some amendments are narrow, while others strike at the heart of the bill.
"I still believe we have good backing, generally speaking," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Wednesday, "but we're still in the process of counting votes."
Costa serves on the House Agriculture Committee, which spent three long days last week completing the 744-page bill. The committee passed it unanimously on a voice vote, with Republicans as well as Democrats offering praise.
By Wednesday, though, the tax issue was starting to undermine some GOP support.
To pay for food-stamp and nutrition-program increases, the House bill anticipates raising some $4 billion in new revenues collected from foreign corporations. The complicated plan closes what critics call a tax loophole, by which U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies shift their reported income to other countries with lower tax rates.
House Republicans and the White House quickly denounced this as a tax increase, warning that it would undermine the bipartisan backing that farm bills normally enjoy.
"It's got a problem," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also a member of the House Agriculture Committee. "The Dems have really messed this up."
McCarthy cautioned that other GOP committee members would find it "very difficult" to vote for the bill with the corporate tax measure. He suggested Democrats would do better to postpone the bill if necessary while finding a less controversial source of money.
In this, the Republican anti-tax coalition could find common ground with liberals who want to decrease subsidies and increase conservation spending. The current House bill, for instance, would ban subsidies to farmers with annual gross incomes greater than $1 million. The most politically charged amendment, authored by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., would, among other changes, impose the subsidy ban at $250,000.
Kind also wants to block the House bill from increasing the subsidy payments that an individual grower could receive. A $40,000 limit on annual direct payments would jump to $60,000 under the House bill.
"More reform is needed, as in several areas the committee's bill moves backward," the White House Office of Management and Budget agreed.
White House officials noted that they support some bill provisions, including the proposed increased in specialty crop funding.
The last time the Bush White House weighed in on a farm bill, in October 2001, it likewise raised strong objections. The House, then controlled by Republicans, ignored the administration and overwhelmingly passed the bill, which underwent further change and became law in 2002.