Agriculture

Lawmakers finish farm bill as White House repeats opposition

Congressional negotiators announced a final agreement on a $300 billion farm bill Thursday, as the White House and key conservatives continued to signal opposition to the legislation.

Married farmers with joint incomes of up to $1.5 million a year could still qualify for crop subsidies under a $300 billion House-Senate compromise that would boost the Department of Agriculture's food and farm programs. President Bush has vowed to veto it as too expensive and too generous to wealthy farmers.

Jim Nussle, director of the White House budget office, stopped short of saying Bush will veto the bill Thursday but said the legislation still spends too much, relies on budget gimmicks and "doesn't have hardly enough reform."

"For those reasons, it would still be something that the administration would oppose," Nussle said.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that Bush has not told him directly he'll veto the bill, but White House staffers have made it clear to him that Bush's support is unlikely.

Chambliss and other farm negotiators said they are convinced they have a good bill, touting boosts in nutrition programs, including food stamps, that make up more than two-thirds of the legislation. They also praised increases for conservation programs designed to protect farmland and renewable energy programs.

They also said cutbacks to farm subsidies would go farther than they ever have. That includes lower limits on what a farmer can earn to qualify for subsidies - the current income limit for an individual is an average annual income of $2.5 million - and the elimination of loopholes that now allow farmers to collect subsidies for multiple farm businesses.

"Those people who say there is no reform here have not read this bill," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

But even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a supporter of the bill, said she wished it had gone further in limiting payments to wealthy farmers.

In a statement, Pelosi said she would have "preferred more commodity reform," referring to scaling back subsidies, but praised increases for food stamps and other programs in the bill.

"The bipartisan farm bill will ease the strain on rising food prices for American families, begin much-needed reforms to farm payments and make a substantial commitment to land conservation and to fruits and vegetables," she said.

The bill would also expand subsidies for certain crops, increase loan rates for sugar producers and extend dairy programs. The final agreement also includes some cuts to direct payments, which are distributed to some producers no matter how much they grow.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer on Thursday criticized the inclusion of a $3.8 billion program that pays farmers who lose crops due to weather, which he says questions the government's investments in existing crop insurance for farmers.

"This action will discredit farm programs and jeopardize public support for future farm bills," he said.

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., said members were meeting Thursday to coordinate a House override strategy.

Herseth Sandlin said she is optimistic that the chamber would approve the bill if Bush vetoes it. But House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio signaled Thursday that he would vote against the bill.

"I think, in a time of high commodity prices, to be raising loan limits and target prices just really flies in the face of reality," he said.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from the farm state of Nebraska, also criticized the bill.

"The loopholes are still there," Hagel said. "It's larded down with pork. It's just a bad bill."

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