House and Senate lawmakers yesterday finally reached agreement on a $300 billion, five-year farm bill that contains $500 million in tax-exempt bond provisions.
After a lengthy conference that required several extensions of the current law, conferees emerged late Wednesday with a package to present to President Bush, even though he has made clear he will probably veto it. Supporters of the bill had vowed to try to get enough votes to override any veto.
The conference bill contains $500 million of tax-exempt timber conservation bonds, as well as several improvements to the "aggie" bond program, which helps first-time farmers and ranchers to purchase land.
The bill would mark the first time the aggie bond program has been updated in 26 years. It would increase the loan limit for an individual beginning farmer to $450,000 from $250,000 and would index the limit amount for inflation. It would also allow more beginning farmers, including those with a previous stake in family farmland, to qualify for Aggie bonds. The aggie bond provisions are estimated to cost $20 million over 10 years.
"It's been a long and difficult road to this day," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman as well as the farm bill conference committee, said yesterday during a press conference announcing the agreement. He added that while trying to resolve the differences between the House and Senate bills was sometimes like "passing a kidney stone," he is very pleased with the final product, which amounts to "a strong bipartisan" measure.
Now, supporters of the bill are trying to collect enough votes from both chambers to override the threatened presidential veto. Bush said last month that he thought the bill carried too big a price tag and contained "unacceptable" tax revenue provisions. He urged the conferees to abandon efforts to put together a new bill and to simply extend the current law for another year.
Nevertheless, farm conferees continued work on the bill, and yesterday expressed pride in the process and the product.
"I could not be more proud of the give and take, for all the right reasons," said Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
"I have never seen such a productive, bipartisan product," said conferee Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D, a member of both the House Agriculture and the Ways and Means committees. "It's a result we can all be very proud of."
When asked about the looming veto threat, conferees said that they have worked to address some of the president's concerns regarding some of the tax provisions, but they also hope the House and Senate could each override any veto from the president. Each chamber would have to approve the bill by a two-thirds margin to do so.
That might not be a problem in the Senate, which passed its original bill by a vote of 79 to 14, more than a two-thirds margin. But the House bill was approved by a vote of 231 to 191, and lawmakers in that chamber would have to find additional support for a veto override.
Harkin said regardless of vote totals, he hopes the president will reconsider his threat to nix the package.
"I don't know what the president's going to do," he said. "I'll hope he signs it."
However, there have been no indications that the administration has softened its resistance to the bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised the bill yesterday and called for her fellow representatives to support it.