WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday started divvying up a $288 billion farm bill that puts lawmakers on a collision course with the White House.
Bush administration officials are recommending a veto of a bill that they say is tainted by "budget gimmicks," tax increases and subsidies that distort free trade. The officials' stern warnings underscore the tough choices senators will face over the next two weeks in a debate pitting urban against rural, small farm against agribusiness and change against status quo.
"There need to be significant changes, because there are major problems," acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said as Senate debate began. "We have a long way to go here."
The choices made will matter to 2 million farms, 26 million food-stamp recipients and 130 million U.S. taxpayers. All have a stake in the farm bill, which comes around only once every five years.
The Bush administration in late July likewise threatened to veto the House of Representatives' version of a farm bill, but Conner's warnings Monday were particularly vehement. President Bush has now vetoed four bills passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress this year, and White House officials seem prepared, if not eager, for more confrontations.
"I am concerned by this announcement," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, acknowledged, but "I am hopeful we will be able to work through many of the administration's concerns."
Harkin chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, which wrote a draft farm bill that largely retains subsidies for crops such as cotton, rice, corn and wheat. Farm states dominate the committee, while the full Senate brings more varied pressures to bear.
Some crucial choices came even before Senate voting began this week. On Monday, lawmakers dropped plans to offer an agricultural guest-worker amendment after conceding that they lacked the votes for the controversial legalization program.
"In this session, unfortunately, you need more than broad support," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said. "You need the right time and opportunity to line up as well."
Every farm bill follows certain traditions.
Every one comes packed with minute details. The Senate bill, for instance, drills down to include country-of-origin labels for goat meat and macadamia nuts.
Farm bills often create fresh winners. This one offers an additional $2 billion for the fruit and vegetable crops, which have been largely ignored in past farm bills.
Farm bills often offer complicated new wrinkles. The Senate bill has an "average crop revenue program" that offers farmers the option of taking $15 an acre when average statewide prices fall below certain revenue thresholds. This probably would benefit wheat, soybean and feed grain farmers, while cotton and rice farmers likely would retain current subsidies, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
And every farm bill incites debate over how taxpayer dollars can best be spent.
"I am disappointed that the Senate did not do more to respond to the calls for reform," Conner said.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., will offer one key amendment, replacing many subsidies with better crop insurance. Lugar contends public attention will spur marginal improvements even if he loses the vote.
In a similar vein, some senators will propose to limit overall farm payments to $250,000 a year for a two-person household. The current limit is $360,000 a year.
The Bush administration, moreover, wants to ban subsidy payments to farmers with annual gross incomes greater than $200,000. The Senate bill would set the income threshold at $750,000; senators will consider an amendment to reduce this.
Some Senate amendments in particular will put lawmakers in a bind, by proposing that money saved be diverted to food stamps and other nutrition programs for the poor. Nutrition programs, including food stamps, already account for roughly two-thirds of the bill's total cost.