By Jonathan Weisman and Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 22, 2008
The House easily overrode President Bush's veto of a $307 billion farm bill last night in what appeared to be the most significant legislative rebuff of Bush's presidency. But a legislative glitch is likely to force embarrassed Democratic leaders to pass the bill all over again today -- and prompt a second showdown with Bush next month.
The problem came when a House clerk mistakenly dropped a whole section dealing with trade policy from the 673-page bill before it was sent to the White House. Republican leaders argued last night that the House had overriden a veto on legislation that had never actually passed the House and Senate. For the sake of legislative integrity, Democratic aides said, Congress is likely to start the whole process again.
Republican leadership aides last night called it a "monumental Democrat screw-up," but it was Republican disarray that was on display for much of the evening. The bill pitted Republican leader against Republican leader as they argued publicly over another lapse in their commitment to fiscal discipline. As with the first veto override of the Bush presidency, which saved the Water Resources Development Act last year, lawmakers of both parties stepped in to save a law that promised to shower billions of dollars on key constituents and home-district programs.
"The vote on the farm bill has definitely been a challenge, if you look at it as regaining our fiscal brand," said Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), a member of the GOP leadership.
At midday, Bush vetoed the bill, declaring: "Americans sent us to Washington to achieve results and be good stewards of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars. This bill violates that fundamental commitment." Bush objected to subsidies for wealthy agribusinesses at a time of high food prices and record farm income.
Hours later, the House voted 316 to 108 to override the veto, with 100 Republicans siding with 216 Democrats. The Senate voted last week, 81 to 15, to approve the farm bill.
"The principal purpose of agriculture policy in the United States is to guarantee we're not as dependent on other countries for our food as we are for our fuel," declared House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam (Fla.). He broke not only with Bush but also with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who opposes a bill he has called wasteful.
For House Republicans, grappling with plunging political fortunes that include three consecutive special election losses in traditionally GOP districts, the farm bill was particularly divisive. Republican leaders have encouraged the rank and file to help the party regain the mantle of small-government fiscal discipline, a theme of the McCain campaign.
"We can say what we want at press conferences or in slogans, but what we do on the floor screams far louder," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a McCain ally and an opponent of the farm bill.
At the same time, party moderates have been urging their colleagues to oppose Bush at every opportunity or face electoral disaster in November.
"If I was a farm-belt guy, I would be all over my district now, saying, 'I stood with you, not the party of the president,' " said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who wrote to GOP leaders last week, urging them to defy Bush or at least allow rank-and-file members to save themselves. "Anytime you can separate yourself from someone with a 28 percent favorability rating, that's a good thing."
The five-year measure continues and in some cases expands traditional farm subsidies, and it is stuffed with billions of dollars of new money for anti-hunger programs, conservation programs, fruit and vegetable growers, and the biofuels industry. Dairy farmers will get as much as $410 million more over 10 years to cover higher feed costs. House and Senate negotiators tucked in an annual authorization of $15 million to help "geographically disadvantaged farmers" in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
The bill assures growers of basic crops such as wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans $5 billion a year in automatic payments, even if farm and food prices stay at record levels. And subsidies for the ethanol industry will decline only slightly, leaving largely intact support for the biofuel industry, which has been blamed for contributing to higher food prices.
An unusual coalition of urban liberals and Republican fiscal conservatives tried to sustain Bush's veto. "Merely because the president is not the most popular person in the country today doesn't mean he's always wrong," said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who pushed for sweeping changes to the farm-support system.
But that coalition was overwhelmed by the larger bipartisan coalition committed to defending rural constituents, food stamp and school nutrition programs, and new benefits for African American farmers. Nutrition programs will consume about two-thirds of the spending.
"This is a bill about feeding the hungry," pleaded Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). "This president is turning his back on the people of America."
Hundreds of grass-roots organizations, including food banks, supported the legislation. The National Farmers Union rallied more than 1,000 organizations in favor of the override.
"Although it's pork to most of the country, it's prime rib to the farm belt," Davis said.
Morgan is a contract writer for The Post and a fellow of the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan policy institute.