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Originally published Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Farm bill nears House approval, Bush veto

The House today is expected to approve a five-year, $280 billion-plus farm bill, accelerating an election-year collision with President...

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The House today is expected to approve a five-year, $280 billion-plus farm bill, accelerating an election-year collision with President Bush.

Packed with subsidies, watered-down revisions and special goodies — some popped in at the last minute — the massive bill faces a promised presidential veto. The big political unknown is whether enough Republicans will abandon Bush to render him powerless.

"I am deeply disappointed in the [bill], as it falls far short of the proposal my administration put forward," Bush said Tuesday afternoon. "If this bill makes it to my desk, I will veto it."

A two-thirds vote in the House and Senate is needed to overcome a veto. That margin is all but guaranteed in the Senate, but the House will be a closer call.

Officially called the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, the farm bill devotes nearly three-quarters of its funding to food stamps and other nutrition programs. It offers record spending for fruits and vegetables while largely sustaining traditional crop subsidies.

Bush wanted the bill to ban all subsidy payments to farmers with incomes exceeding $200,000. Instead, the bill bans one form of subsidy to farmers with agricultural incomes exceeding $750,000. For a married couple, the outside income limit will be $1.5 million.

Beyond the big-ticket items, the bill is a grab bag of Capitol Hill favorites.

The bill includes new "stress assistance" grants for farmers and ranchers. It funds a University of Nebraska drought-assistance center and directs agricultural grants toward the acutely urban University of the District of Columbia. It makes certain racehorses depreciable over three years instead of the standard seven.

Lawmakers looking for details Tuesday were still scouring the 673-page farm-bill conference report and accompanying 423-page explanatory statement, made public about 24 hours before today's House vote. The conference report reflects deals struck by negotiators over the past several months.

"It was written by the conference committee behind completely closed doors," complained Julie Sibbing, an agriculture- and wetlands-policy analyst for the National Wildlife Federation.

Some critics cited as an example the $170 million included in the final farm bill for distressed salmon fishermen in Washington, Oregon and California. Neither the House nor Senate farm bills passed earlier included the money, but it was a priority for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her close ally, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.

"It was simply 'airdropped' into the final bill in secret," said House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.

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Thompson responded that the funding was supported by other Western lawmakers and was "desperately needed" by communities adversely affected by the closure of Pacific Ocean fishing areas. Low fish populations in the Sacramento and Columbia rivers prompted the closures.

More than 550 farm, consumer and service organizations, ranging from the Texas Peanut Growers Association to the Florida Sugar Cane League, likewise rallied in support of the legislation.

The Senate in December demonstrated the farm bill's overall political popularity, approving its original version by a 79-14 margin. The House's original approval margin of 231-191 last summer was misleadingly narrow, as Republicans were unhappy with tax provisions that have since been removed.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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