WASHINGTON — Weary congressional negotiators on Thursday completed a massive farm bill that confronts a presidential veto threat amid complicated election-year politics.
After missing many deadlines, lawmakers unveiled a five-year, $286 billion package that includes record spending on fruits and vegetables combined with crop subsidy reforms that critics consider inadequate. The bill's long-term future remains unclear in the face of Bush's anticipated veto.
"I am a happy man," Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said Thursday afternoon. "It has been a long and difficult road to this day."
Negotiators finished the bill after clearing final hurdles Wednesday night, including a complex formula for banning federal payments to wealthy farmers. The untested subsidy formula defied simple explanation even by some of the lawmakers themselves Thursday.
The bill devotes $1 billion to buying fruit-and-vegetable snacks for schoolchildren, and millions of dollars to advertise U.S. fruits, nuts, wine and other foods overseas. It props up domestic prices for sugar, bails out distressed asparagus growers and pays farmers more for conserving sensitive land.
The Bush administration quickly denounced the legislation as a costly, gimmick-filled package that will distort trade and enrich farmers who don't need the money.
"The president will veto this bill," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer promised reporters. "What happens after that will be up to the legislators' consciences."
Bush endured considerable conservative criticism after he signed an expensive 2002 farm bill. This year Schafer said the White House disapproves of the "wasteful and irresponsible spending" that Congress has crafted in response to "special interests."
The farm bill clash will now center on both policy and politics.
On policy, the White House wants tighter subsidy reforms. As described by lawmakers Thursday, the new bill would ban all government payments to farmers with off-farm income exceeding $500,000. The bill also would ban one form of subsidy, called a direct payment, to farmers with on-farm income exceeding $750,000.
The Bush administration wanted to ban subsidies to farmers with incomes over $200,000. Lawmakers on Thursday could not identify how many farmers might be affected by the new farm bill's proposed limits, although apparently it will not be very many.
"The pigs at the trough continued to promote generous handouts from taxpayers," declared Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, an anti-hunger human rights group.
Politically, the farm fight now becomes one of the highest-profile veto showdowns of the Bush administration.
Dwight Eisenhower was the last president to veto a stand-alone, comprehensive farm bill, in April 1956. Eisenhower's Gallup Poll job approval rating hovered around 70 percent at the time, and Congress sustained his veto. By contrast, Bush's job approval rating is now at an all-time low of 28 percent, according to the Gallup Poll.
"He will veto it at his peril," predicted Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.
The bill is loaded with provisions targeting nearly every region of the country. Asparagus growers in Michigan, Washington and California, for instance, would benefit from a new $15 million aid program. For the East Coast, there's a new $400 million program designed to protect Chesapeake Bay. For urban lawmakers, there's $10 billion for various nutrition programs including food stamps.
The House and Senate would each require a two-thirds majority to overcome a veto. To date, Congress has overridden only one of Bush's nine vetoes. The farm bill's authors will now try to showcase their strength with large votes next week, including getting at least 300 supporters when the House votes next Wednesday.
This puts congressional Republicans in a box, especially rural House members who face re-election in the fall. Tellingly, senior Republicans on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees strongly endorsed the farm bill Thursday.
"Members will have to consider this vote from the standpoint of their constituents, and their own districts," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California added that GOP lawmakers will confront a "real tight" choice between supporting the president and backing a bill endorsed by most major farm organizations. Like many other lawmakers Thursday, Nunes was still scrambling to find out key details.
Harkin, Goodlatte and Cardoza were among the 60 House and Senate members named to the "conference committee" responsible for writing the final farm bill. Most of the heavy lifting, though, was done by a half-dozen lawmakers working behind closed doors. That dynamic repeatedly frustrated those not in the room, Cardoza noted.
"It's been a bumpy ride," acknowledged Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, "but we've kept the faith."
The bill won't be publicly available until Monday morning, when it will be posted on the House Agriculture Committee's Web site at http://agriculture.house.gov/inside/FarmBill.html.