WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a major expansion of federal farm supports, defying the White House and repudiating the free-market policy enacted by Republicans in 1996.
The Bush administration stopped short of threatening a veto but said the cash will benefit big farms that need it the least while promoting more price-depressing surpluses of crops.
The bill, which would cost $170 billion over 10 years, creates a new subsidy program to protect grain, cotton and soybean growers when prices are low and revives supports for sheep and honey producers that were eliminated in the 1990s. Authors of the legislation, approved 291-120, say the existing financial safety net for farmers has proven inadequate.
``The 1996 farm bill is an utter failure,'' said Texas Rep. Charles Stenholm, senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
The ``Freedom to Farm'' law was supposed to wean farmers from government supports, but when grain prices collapsed in 1998, lawmakers responded with a series of multibillion dollar bailouts that discouraged growers from cutting production.
The bill would boost commodity programs by $49 billion, or about 63 percent, over existing supports, with the bulk of the money going to the grain, cotton and soybean farmers that have traditionally dominated farm programs.
Conservation spending would grow by $16 billion, or about 75 percent over current programs, with much of those benefits going to livestock operations and fruit and vegetable growers.
Farmers have ``outmaneuvered nearly every other interest group in terms of capturing more federal dollars. It's mind-boggling how effective they are,'' said Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.
The legislation ``returns predictability to government farm support, and ensures a level of security to our farming operations that has been missing the last several years,'' said Dusty Tallman, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to start work on its version of the bill later this month.
The administration unsuccessfully appealed to the House to delay work on the legislation, saying it was too soon after the Sept. 11 attacks to commit as much $170 billion to farm programs. By increasing subsidies, the bill also would undermine U.S. efforts to lower foreign trade barriers, the White House says.
The administration wants more money put into conservation programs that reward farmers for cutting back on runoff of fertilizer and animal waste.
``We do believe there can be additional things added into the bill to reach a broader number of people and a broader number of farmers,'' Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said.
With the federal budget surplus vanishing, farm lobbyists are pushing the Senate to work as quickly as possible. The House bill uses $73.5 billion in surplus funds that were set aside in a congressional budget agreement this spring before the economy went sour.
The Senate committee's chairman, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, wants to steer more money into conservation programs. But his home state is the biggest beneficiary of existing programs, and the committee is dominated by senators representing midwestern and southern states that are major producers of subsidized crops.
The House agreed to move $1 billion in crop subsidies into rural development programs, but narrowly rejected the biggest challenge to the legislation, a proposal to use $19 billion in crop supports for conservation. That would have benefitted states in the East and West that traditionally receive little farm assistance.
``While the amendment lost, the strong support for it, in the face of this onslaught, puts us in great shape for the debate in the Senate,'' Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
The House dodged a fight over whether to authorize regional price controls on milk, but the issue is expected to resurface in the Senate. A price-setting commission for New England expired last Sunday, but the House leadership would not allow a vote on resurrecting that system and expanding it to other states.
A proposal to levy fees on bottlers to create a national system for supporting dairy farmers was voted down.