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House passes $290 billion farm bill

WASHINGTON -- By a strong, veto-proof majority, the House passed a $290 billion farm bill with increased subsidies for farmers and food stamps for the poor amid rising grocery prices while sprinkling in pet projects that lawmakers can take home to voters this election year.

The 318-106 vote for the five-year bill gave supporters 28 more than they need to override a promised veto from President Bush, who has complained the measure is too expensive and generous to farmers now enjoying record earnings.

"A bloated, earmark-laden bill," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said after the vote.

About two-thirds of the bill would pay for nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. An additional $40 billion is for farm subsidies while almost $30 billion would go to farmers to idle their land and to other environmental programs.

The Senate planned to vote on the bill today. Rejecting a veto by Bush would be even easier in the Senate because farm states have greater representation than they do in the House. Congress has only overridden one veto, on a water projects bill, during Bush's two terms.

Cando farmer Mike Johnston, who was planting barley Wednesday afternoon, said he's not familiar with many details of the bill.

But he said he and other farmers want the matter settled. Congress began working on a new farm bill last year.

"It would be nice to have something in place," he said.

Though crop prices are strong, rising expenses and dry conditions across the region threaten profitability, he said.

Urban residents seem increasingly unaware of farmers' needs and concerns, he said.

"The disconnect is growing" - for instance, many people don't realize most farm bill spending goes for nutrition programs, not to farmers, he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the measure "will drastically increase nutrition initiatives that will help 38 million American families put health food on their table."

She made it clear she would have preferred smaller farm subsidies, but deferred to some Democratic colleagues looking ahead to the fall campaign.

Only 91 Republicans voted against the bill. Bush was abandoned by 100 GOP lawmakers one day after the party lost its third straight special election this year for filling House vacancies. All three districts - one each in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi - include rural farm areas and now have Democrats in seats long held by Republicans.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who worked to win votes in support of the bill, called the 3-1 margin "a tremendous victory."

The bill is "simply the best farm bill ever for the state of North Dakota," he said.

Schafer renewed Bush's veto threat after the vote. "I encourage members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to support his stand for fiscal discipline and the best interests of America's farmers and ranchers," Schafer said.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he won't try to predict what Bush might do.

"We did our work in the House. We provided a strong bipartisan vote. The administration has their function. Whatever decision they make, we'll deal with it," Peterson said in an online news conference.

The bill also would:

E Boost nutrition programs, including food stamps and emergency domestic food aid, by more than $10 billion over 10 years. It would expand a program to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren.

E Increase subsidies for certain crops, including fruits and vegetables excluded from previous farm bills.

E Extend dairy programs.

E Increase loan rates for sugar producers.

E Urge the government to buy surplus sugar and sell it to ethanol producers for use in a mixture with corn.

E Cut a per-gallon ethanol tax credit for refiners from 51 cents to 45 cents. The credit supports the blending of fuel with the corn-based additive. More money would go to cellulosic ethanol, made from plant matter.

E Require that meats and other fresh foods carry labels with their country of origin.

E Stop allowing farmers to collect subsidies for multiple farm businesses.

E Reopen a major discrimination case against the Agriculture Department. Thousands of black farmers who missed a deadline would get a chance to file claims alleging they were denied loans or other subsidies.

E Pay farmers for weather-related farm losses from a new $3.8 billion disaster relief fund.

Congressional negotiators tried for weeks to come closer to the White House on the amount of money paid to wealthy farmers - one of the chief sticking points with the administration.

The legislation would make small cuts to direct payments, which are distributed to some farmers no matter how much they grow. The farm bill also would eliminate some federal payments to individuals with more than $750,000 in annual farm income - or married farmers who make more than $1.5 million.

Individuals who make more than $500,000 or couples who make more than $1 million jointly in nonfarm income also would not eligible for subsidies.

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.