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Farm Compromise Heads to Floor Next Week

Despite grumbling from some Republican leaders and President Bush, a nearly $300 billion bipartisan farm bill package announced Thursday appeared to be headed for the president’s desk next week with the potential for a veto-proof margin.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that if the compromise held, the bill was “likely” to hit the House floor next Wednesday.

The massive package, nearly three-fourths of which goes to nutrition programs, has drawn fire from the White House over concerns that the five-year package is too costly and fails to include enough cost-saving reforms.

“We’re not at the finish line,” said House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) “We’ve got to get this bill through the House and Senate. We’ve got to figure out some way to get this into law.”

Peterson said the bill is fully offset, but he conceded that it has to be approved before the fiscal 2009 budget resolution in order to avoid pay-as-you-go budget problems.

Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he hoped President Bush would sign the bill, noting that the Senate farm bill passed by 79 votes last year –– more than enough votes to override a veto.

Among its provisions, the bill, hammered out in conference, tightens gross income limits for wealthy farmers to qualify for federal subsidies. Non-farming income may not exceed $500,000 to receive a subsidy, while eligibility is also eliminated if farm income exceeds $750,000.

The legislation includes $3.8 billion in disaster aid, $4 billion in new conservation funds and more than $10 billion in additional nutrition funding. It also includes more than $1 billion for energy and specialty crop titles.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she “certainly would have wanted more” commodity reforms in the final package but recognized that “this is the bill that had the support to pass.”

But House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he would probably vote against the conference report, as he did on the last farm bill, arguing that it did not go far enough in reforming subsidies and relied on budgetary maneuvering to avoid violating PAYGO rules.

“I don’t think this farm bill represents our best effort,” Boehner said.

The bipartisan lovefest over the conference compromise grew testy Thursday when reporters pressed lawmakers over the potential for wealthy farmers to continue getting paid and whether corn ethanol subsidies are justified at a time of record corn prices, soaring food costs and food shortages.

“Give us a break here,” said an exasperated Peterson when peppered with questions about whether millionaires might still receive subsidies.

Harkin said the glass was “half full” because the new limits will be much less than under the existing farm bill, saving the government $620 million. Other reforms saved an additional $2 billion.

And Harkin bristled at criticism of the corn ethanol subsidies, which will be trimmed slightly under the bill, in part to pay for enhanced subsidies for cellulosic ethanol, which would make alternative fuel out of waste products like wood chips.

“This gets my dander up,” he said, arguing that high food prices have more to do with rising fuel prices and the cheap dollar, and that without corn ethanol, the price of gas would be much higher.

Peterson argued that the oil industry gets larger subsidies than the ethanol one.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), House Agriculture Committee ranking member, said he expected the bill to pass by large margins in both chambers but declined to predict a veto-proof majority.

The actual text of the bill isn’t expected to be available until Monday morning, and the bill had not yet been fully scored by the Congressional Budget Office, Peterson said.

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