WASHINGTON - The Senate yesterday approved a farm bill that would continue to funnel billions of dollars in subsidies to wealthy landowners and farmers who are earning record-breaking prices for their crops, rebuffing a concerted campaign by some senators to shift money to conservation, nutrition and deficit reduction.
The bill has drawn a veto threat from President Bush, who has criticized the subsidy payments and the creation of a $5 billion permanent disaster fund.
The White House has an unlikely set of allies in taxpayer groups, environmentalists, physicians and rural community advocates who tried to change the bill's priorities. They pledged to continue lobbying as the House and Senate try to reconcile the differences in their bills.
Supporters of the Senate bill point out that it institutes significant changes, including support for biofuels and for fruit and vegetable farmers.
Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) fought for some of those changes before the bill passed, 79-14, a margin wide enough to override a presidential veto.
"We were able to work within a very strict budget allocation . . . and pass a farm bill that is good for agriculture, good for rural areas, and good for the health of Americans," Harkin said.
But other lawmakers pointed out that the bill does not significantly alter the current subsidy system, which allows one resident in Beverly Hills, Calif., to receive $1 million in farm-subsidy payments.
"This farm bill fails to provide the fundamental reform we need in Washington," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), who proposed a failed amendment that would have phased out subsidies and used the money for nutrition, conservation, and free crop insurance for all growers.
All Philadelphia-area senators voted for the bill, except Lautenberg, who voted no, and Joseph R. Biden Jr., who did not vote.
The administration said the Senate and House farm bills would approve the creation of $22.4 billion in new taxes while failing to do much to limit subsidies.
"Congress has refused to significantly limit farm-income subsidies for the wealthiest Americans," the White House said in a statement. The $288 billion farm bill sets agriculture policy for five years, but its influence extends to school-lunch programs, conservation programs, alternative-fuel development, food safety, and the amount of help that hungry Americans receive.
About 66 percent of the bill deals with nutrition programs, such as food stamps, but the bill also gives billions of dollars in subsidies to farms that grow a few major crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat. Activists and some lawmakers argue that the subsidies contribute to diet-driven epidemics, such as childhood obesity and diabetes.
The bill does establish some limits on subsidies. Currently, farmers with an adjusted gross income of $2.5 million can receive commodity payments.