WASHINGTON – The House overwhelmingly rejected President Bush’s veto Wednesday of a $290 billion farm bill, but what should have been a stinging defeat for the president became an embarrassment for Democrats.
Only hours before the House’s 316-108 vote, Bush had vetoed the five-year measure, saying it was too expensive and gave too much money to wealthy farmers when farm incomes are high. The Senate then was expected to follow suit quickly.
Action stalled, however, after the discovery that Congress had omitted a 34-page section of the bill when lawmakers sent the massive measure to the White House.
That means Bush vetoed a different bill from the one Congress passed, raising questions that the eventual law would be unconstitutional. Republicans objected when Democrats proposed passing the missing section separately and sending that to Bush.
In order to avoid those potential problems, House Democrats hoped to pass the entire bill, again, today under expedited rules usually reserved for unopposed legislation. The Senate was expected to follow suit. The correct version would then be sent to Bush under a new bill number for another expected veto.
Lawmakers also will have to pass an extension of current farm law, which expires Friday.
“We will have to repass the whole thing, as will the Senate,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. “We can’t let the farm bill just die.”
The White House, almost gleefully, seized on the fumble and said the mix-up could give Congress time to fix the “bloated” bill.
“We are trying to understand the ramifications of this congressional farm bill foul-up. We haven’t found a precedent for a congressional blunder of this magnitude,” said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman. “It looks like it may be back to square one for them.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., shot back.
“Partisan sniping won’t solve this clerical error that even the White House failed to catch,” said Drew Hammill.
The legislation includes election-year subsidies for farmers and food stamps for the poor – spending that lawmakers could promote when they are back in their districts over the Memorial Day weekend.
The veto was the 10th of Bush’s presidency. Congress so far has overridden him once, on a water projects bill.
With Bush at record lows in the polls in the waning months of his term, it was fellow Republicans who joined with majority Democrats in rejecting the veto. GOP lawmakers are anxious about their own prospects less than six months from Election Day.
About two-thirds of the bill would pay for nutrition programs such as food stamps; about $40 billion is for farm subsidies; and additional $30 billion would go to farmers to idle their land and to other environmental programs.
Congressional Republicans overwhelmingly abandoned Bush in voting to pass the bill last week, overlooking its cost amid public concern about the weak economy and high gas and grocery prices. Supporters praised the spending on food stamps and emergency food aid.
Before the problem with the bill was discovered, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the legislation could make the situation worse for struggling families.
“Members are going to have to think about how they will explain these votes back in their districts at a time when prices are on the rise,” she said. “People are not going to want to see their taxes increase.”
Bush said the legislation needlessly would expand government. He cited one new program in the bill that would pay more to corn growers and others if agriculture revenue were to drop significantly in the next five years. This program, he said, could add billions of dollars to the cost of the bill.
Wednesday’s snag stemmed from an error made while printing the legislation on parchment before sending it to Bush.
Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, said the section in question – which deals with trade and international food aid programs – was never printed. Indeed, the final, 628-page version of the bill jumps straight from “Title II” on conservation programs to “Title IV” on nutrition programs.