Error may force "re-do" of U.S. farm bill veto

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress gave President George W. Bush an incomplete version of the $289 billion farm bill, a mistake that would erase his veto and may require lawmakers to pass the bill again, lawmakers and congressional aides said on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer said “a likely option” was to pass a new version of the farm bill on Thursday. Two Republicans said Congress may have to repeat the entire process of sending the five-year bill to the president. A final decision was expected to be reached overnight.

While sorting out the farm bill, Congress may need another stopgap bill to keep Agriculture Department programs running. The latest short-term extension expires on Friday. Congress is scheduled to recess on Thursday for the Memorial Day holiday.

“It looks like it may be back to square one for them,” said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, who suggested Congress could clean up the “bloated bill” that it originally passed. “We haven’t found a precedent for a congressional blunder of this magnitude.”

House Agriculture Committee leaders said a clerical error omitted Title III, 35 pages on trade and food aid programs, from the copy of the bill that was transmitted to the White House. Congress is obligated to give the president an exact copy of bills for approval or veto.

The White House announced a veto of the bill at midday on Wednesday and the House had voted, 316-108, to override the veto when House Republican leaders objected to retroactive steps to restore the trade title to the bill. Most members did not learn of the problem until shortly before the vote.

“What happened here is a serious constitutional question,” said Assistant Republican Leader Roy Blunt. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican leader on the Agriculture Committee, said, “A number of members believe the correct thing is to do the whole process again.”

Meanwhile, a Senate Agriculture Committee aide said the Senate was scheduled to vote on Thursday to override the vetoed bill. A decision on how to enact Title III would be made later, she said.

The farm bill would expand spending on nutrition programs by $10.36 billion over 10 years, mostly to help poor Americans buy food. Ten million people would benefit from changes in the food stamp program and an additional $125 million would be spent on donations to food pantries each year.

Two-thirds of farm bill spending would go to nutrition. The five-year bill also increases funding for land stewardship and biofuels development. It cuts crop insurance and crop supports by several-billion dollars over 10 years.

In his veto message, Bush said the farm bill, by failing to cut crop subsidies enough, would send tax dollars to multimillionaire farmers while Americans pay higher grocery bills. The White House says the bill contains $10 billion in budget gimmicks, grants higher supports to wheat, soybeans and sugar, and runs contrary to U.S. goals of freer farm trade.

To carry out a shift in U.S. policy on biofuels, the farm bill cuts the tax credit for corn-based ethanol by 12 percent, to 45 cents a gallon, and creates a $1.01-a-gallon tax credit for ethanol made from cellulose. The bill also has loan guarantees to build cellulosic ethanol plants and would pay farmers to experiment with biomass crops.

The Bush administration was dubious of the bill’s keynote reform -- an income ceiling for access to farm subsidies. The bill would deny all subsidies to people with more than $500,000 a year in off-farm income and bar “direct” payments to those with more than $750,000 a year in farm income.

“Virtually no one in America is going to be impacted and that is a missed opportunity,” said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner.

Editing by Braden Reddall