WASHINGTON — Congress bungled its big farm bill finale, forcing embarrassed lawmakers on Thursday to pass the whole thing all over again less than a day after the House overrode President Bush's veto.
Golfers call this a mulligan, a do-over. Growers might prefer another term, like ludicrous.
In a bizarre twist that left farm bill skeptics steaming, the House on Thursday was forced to approve once more a $289 million-plus bill opposed by the White House. The bill approved by a 306-110 margin was identical to one passed by the House and Senate last week.
It was not, however, identical to the one vetoed by Bush on Wednesday morning. That's where the egg on the face comes in.
"It was just a human error," noted Dan Haley, a lobbyist for Sun-Maid Growers and other California farm groups, "but it's emblematic of what this entire process has been like: up and down, in and out; dead, then resurrected."
Nothing about this farm bill has been straightforward, starting with the basics. The bill's authors say the bill will cost $289 billion over five years. The Congressional Budget Office pegs the cost at $307 billion. The bill was due Dec. 31. It may not be finished until early June, because of this latest reversal.
The farm bill package Bush vetoed included 14 separate titles. These are essentially chapters, covering everything from commodity subsidies to nutrition and specialty crops. The nutrition title, for instance, includes $1 billion to expand a fruit-and-vegetable school snack program into all 50 states.
The farm bill as originally passed by Congress, though, included 15 titles.
When the official "enrolled" version was printed out on parchment for Bush's signature or veto, the 8,322-word trade title was inadvertently omitted.
Apparently, no one noticed the missing title until after Bush had vetoed the document. House Minority Leader John Boehner, a farm bill opponent, warned on Wednesday that the bill could be in jeopardy because of the disparity between what Bush vetoed and what Congress passed.
The Democratic-controlled House pressed ahead Wednesday with a veto override anyway, with 100 Republicans contributing to the 316-108 veto margin.
By later Wednesday night, though, House leaders and parliamentary experts concluded they needed another vote to avoid a potential legal challenge. Republicans howled that the rush to finish Wednesday amounted to partisan trickery.
"This is not the way it is done," said Rep. David Dreier of California, the senior Republican on the House Rules Committee.
Angry Republicans further reminded Democrats of a 2006 deficit reduction bill, inadvertently approved in slightly different forms by the House and Senate. Then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sought to chastise Republicans for the 2006 decision that "allowed the House to vote on an incorrect version of this legislation." On a party-line vote Thursday, Republicans likewise failed in their effort to "admonish" Democratic leaders.
The House, not entirely sure how to proceed Thursday, approved both the complete farm bill and, separately, the trade title that had gone missing. This gave the Senate two options. The Senate, which voted Thursday to override Bush's veto by a 82-13 margin, could send Bush the entire bill again for another doomed-to-fail veto.
Alternatively, the Senate could send Bush just the omitted trade title. Senators cited an 1892 Supreme Court case involving a tariff bill, covering items like "silk and cotton laces," as evidence the farm bill is still on solid ground. Lawmakers, meanwhile are still chewing over what with happened with the farm bill and why.
"Uncustomarily crude," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, when asked how she reacted upon first learning of the farm bill mishap.