WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate gave final congressional approval on Thursday to a $289 billion farm bill that expands programs to help feed poor Americans, and lawmakers said Congress could easily override a presidential veto.
President (George W.) Bush on Tuesday promised to veto the bill on grounds it subsidizes multimillionaire farmers while Americans face higher food prices. The White House says the bill has $10 billion in hidden spending and rather than embrace reform, increases subsidy rates for wheat and soybeans.
“I urge the president to skip the veto,” said Montana Democrat Max Baucus.
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin said the override could be completed by the end of next week.
Two-thirds of farm bill spending would go to public nutrition programs. Ten million people would benefit from changes in the food-stamp program. An additional $125 million a year would be spent on donations to food pantries.
All told, $10.3 billion would be added to nutrition programs over 10 years, including $7.9 billion for food stamps. With food prices forecast to rise by 4.5 percent this year, lawmakers said the farm bill would bring a sweeping expansion of food programs.
“We have tremendous help in this bill for those families,” said Sen. Robert Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, referring to food-stamp participants. Nearly 28 million people receive food stamps each month.
Senators passed the bill by a veto-proof margin of 81-15. The House passed the bill, 318-106, on Wednesday. To override a veto, each chamber must call a new vote and pass the bill by a two-thirds majority.
In the end, food assistance displaced farm-subsidy reform as the leading issue. Sen. Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican, said “honestly, there aren’t a lot” of farmers who will be affected by language to block the wealthiest Americans from collecting subsidies.
Among the changes in the food-stamp program are a larger minimum monthly benefit, changes in asset limits to qualify for aid and larger deductions for child care and other costs when calculating benefits. The minimum benefit was frozen at $10 a month three decades ago.
“Hungry people should not have to wait any longer for these improvements,” said Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center, one of dozens of antihunger groups who supported the changes.
A school-snack program that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income children would be expanded nationwide.
Besides food programs, the farm bill would put more money into land stewardship, biofuels and fruits and vegetables. Funding for traditional crop supports would be cut by several billions of dollars.
“In fact, there is little farm in the farm bill anymore,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, during House debate.
The bill would encourage development of ethanol from cellulose, found in grasses and trees, by creating a $1.01 a gallon tax credit for the renewable fuel. The tax credit for corn-based ethanol would be cut by 12 percent, to 45 cents.
Reporting by Charles Abbott, editing by Jim Marshall