WASHINGTON -The Democratic-controlled House passed legislation Friday that combines billions in aid for farmers with money for low-income nutrition programs, defying a veto threat from President Bush over the bill's largesse to crop producers.
The measure, passed on a vote of 231-191, devotes more money to conservation, renewable energy, nutrition and specialty crop programs than in the past but leaves in place - and in some cases increases - subsidies to producers of major crops such as corn and soybeans at a time of record-high prices.
It reflected a delicate straddle for Democrats writing their first farm bill in a decade, who struggled to balance the needs of first-term, farm-state lawmakers against the demands of liberals seeking more money for environmental and nutrition programs.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the measure "signals change and shows a new direction in our farm policy," but it fell well short of the changes many in her party had demanded.
"More needs to be done, but we have gone in the right direction for change and for reform," Pelosi said in a nearly 15-minute speech in which she defended her support for the measure, which has earned her barbs from some environmental and anti-hunger activists.
Democrats rallied around the bill, however, after debate turned bitterly partisan over a tax measure included to finance some $4 billion in food stamp and other nutrition programs. The plan would impose new taxes on certain multinational companies with U.S. subsidiaries.
Democrats said they were closing a loophole and cracking down on foreign tax-dodgers, while Republicans called it a massive tax hike that would affect manufacturers that provide millions of jobs in their districts. The spat sapped the farm bill of much of its customary bulletproof regional appeal, turning many rural Republicans against the measure.
All but 19 Republicans opposed it, leaving Democrats well short of the margin they would need to override a veto.
"This is an unprecedented move to use a farm bill as a vehicle to increase taxes," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the No. 3 Republican. "We could have put the House imprint on the farm bill, and now it is veto bait, and that is a tragedy."
The legislation aims to ban subsidies to farmers whose income averages more than $1 million a year, down from the current limit of $2.5 million. It also would stop farmers from collecting payments for multiple farm businesses. Still, it includes about $42 billion in assistance to farmers.
It came after Democrats quashed a rebellion from one of their own, Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who teamed with conservative GOP budget hawks and urban and suburban Democrats on an amendment to wean farmers from government payments. It would have imposed stricter income limits on farmers, barring subsidies to those making an average of $250,000 or more annually, and would have steered more money to conservation, nutrition, specialty crop and rural development programs.
The amendment lost on a lopsided vote, but Pelosi credited it with creating the pressure to invest more farm bill resources in nontraditional programs.
"I had high hopes that this Congress _ given market conditions and our commitment to a new direction for this country _ would have the stomach to reform these outdated and unfair policies," Kind said in a statement. But he said his efforts had prompted increases for conservation and nutrition programs, and made "some modest inroads" on curbing subsidies.
It wasn't enough for some Democrats _ 14 of them joined Republicans in voting against the bill _ but that was a strong showing reflecting a last-minute scramble by party leaders to sweeten the measure for waverers.
They shored up nutrition funding and added $840 million for an international food aid program to earn the votes of anti-hunger activists including Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Mass. Black lawmakers including Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., were swayed by the inclusion of $100 million for settlement of Clinton administration racial discrimination claims by black farmers.
The overall measure was a huge victory for farmers, who got much of what they asked for in a year when they sometimes feared their priorities would be trumped by Democrats' talk of overhauling the way agricultural money is allocated.
It includes a long-sought deal to require country-of-origin labeling for meats and other foods, breathing new life into a five-year-old law that has been delayed repeatedly by opposition from food retailers and meatpackers. The bill would soften penalties for violating the rule, which is to go into effect next year.
The tax provision posed a dilemma for many farm-state Republicans, who were loath to vote for what their party and the Bush administration derided as a tax increase but eager to support an agriculture bill championed by their farmers.
Some, like Reps. Dennis Rehberg of Montana, and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, waited until the Democrats gained the votes necessary for passage to cast their votes in support of the bill. The day before, Rehberg said he strongly opposed the measure.
The measure also directs the Agriculture Department to investigate which estates have received payments on behalf of dead farmers and recoup the money. The department sent $1.1 billion in farm payments to more than 170,000 dead people over a seven-year period, congressional investigators reported this week.
The current farm law expires Sept. 30. The Senate is due to begin its consideration of the legislation in September.
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