WASHINGTON – The White House told members of Congress on Tuesday that the cost of the five-year farm bill is still too high, saying negotiators are using budget gimmicks to hide the real expense.
The cost of the almost $300 billion bill and the amount of subsidies directed toward wealthy farmers remain the major sticking points between the White House and both Democratic and GOP negotiators. President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation.
Negotiators are weighing reports from congressional budget experts on what the bill would cost under several scenarios. They are now considering eliminating some government payments to those who make more than $750,000 in farm income annually, according to two people familiar with the negotiations who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
That would be closer to the White House’s proposal on limiting the subsidies. The Bush administration originally proposed a cap for those who make more than $200,000 in average annual farm income, but has signaled that it could accept a limit of $500,000.
Negotiators last week proposed eliminating some subsidies for all of those who make more than $950,000 in farm income, a proposal that was swiftly rejected by the White House.
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, said he heard from the White House on Tuesday with the complaint that the bill was still too costly. Negotiators reached an agreement last month on how to pay for $10 billion over 10 years in extra spending for the massive bill, but the White House is now arguing that agreement would result in an even higher cost, Chambliss said.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the spending argument was not new.
“For quite some time, we’ve said that the accounting gimmicks and budget tricks greatly inflate the overall cost of the bill,” he said.
Chambliss said he would work to override the bill if the White House vetoes it. The Georgia senator has long been a proponent of higher subsidies as Southern cotton and rice farms cost more to operate.
“We’ve known all along we’d have to make some changes and we’ve made significant changes,” he said.
North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad said the White House is making up its own rules, and negotiators will continue to rely on congressional budget scores. He said a veto override would be “a tough mountain to climb.”
Negotiators said they would continue discussions with the White House on Wednesday and strive to find ways to save money.
Two-thirds of the bill would pay for food stamps, and negotiators have allocated more than $10 billion in extra dollars for nutrition programs. The legislation would also increase grants to fruit and vegetable farmers and boost conservation programs that are designed to protect the land.
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