WASHINGTON - Congress enacted a new $300 billion farm bill Thursday, overriding for only the second time a veto by President Bush, who challenged its farm subsidies as bloated and irresponsible in a time of escalating food prices.
The massive, five-year measure, nominally a farm bill, also funds food stamp, nutrition and conservation programs, which make up two-thirds of the spending. Most of the fireworks, however, have centered on efforts to overhaul the nation's system of farm subsidies.
Minnesota ranked sixth in crop subsidies last year, with $5.2 billion in direct payments to the state's farmers.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the point man on the farm bill as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said the bill represents a step toward reform, with provisions that set new limits on payments to wealthy farmers.
"The reality is what actually goes to farmers under this bill is less than 9 percent of the bill," he said. "All of the new money in this bill is going to nutrition, going to conservation, going to fruits and vegetables, going to energy."
The Senate voted 82 to 13 Thursday to override the president's veto, following the lead of the House, which had voted 316 to 108 on Wednesday.
The bipartisan majorities in both chambers masked deep divisions among Republicans caught between the president's call for fiscal responsibility and farm state interests.
Two Minnesota Republicans were among those who voted to uphold the veto: Reps. Michele Bachmann and Jim Ramstad. Both said the changes made in the bill didn't go far enough.
The rest of the Minnesota delegation voted to override.
"Minnesota agriculture generates $55 billion in economic activity and underpins 367,000 jobs, and this bill will go a long way toward helping our farm families to continue feeding and fueling the nation," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D- Minn., called it a "significant step toward payment reform," that improves the safety net for the state's sugar beet and dairy producers.
Much of the debate focused on provisions limiting payments to the nation's largest farms, mostly in the South and Midwest. Federal subsidies will be limited to those earning up to $750,000, or married couples with farm income of up to $1.5 million. For nonfarmer investors, the income limit is set at $500,000 in nonfarm income. The White House had called for a $200,000 overall income limit.
Critics say Washington will continue to give too much money to major commodity growers, who as a group earn more money than the average American.
'We made some gains'
"There's no question that we made some gains in this farm bill, but it still is a huge problem where we're throwing the money at direct payments," said Paul Sobocinski, a Wabasso, Minn., farmer who works with the Land Stewardship Project, a conservation group.
Major farm groups fought hard to continue the system of price supports and other subsidies, arguing that they ensure stability and abundance in the nation's food supply. Bruce Stockman, executive director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said some subsidy programs were trimmed, while more innovative ways are being tried to stabilize farm income.
At bottom, Stockman said, the farm bill is a victory for rural America. "If the farmers have money to spend, they spend it in town," he said.
It was also an achievement for Peterson, who spearheaded a year of negotiations in his new role as chairman of the House Agriculture committee.
The stakes were high for him. Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier said: "Not succeeding in this way would, I think, ... weaken his ability to impact future farm legislation."
Conrad Wilson • 202-408-2723