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Farm bill puts GOP in tight spot

At first glance, the pressure of crafting the next federal farm bill would appear to be on majority Democrats, in charge of the process for the first time in more than a decade.

But in the congressional delegations of Georgia and other farm states, it's Republicans who are being forced to choose between their ideological beliefs and practical politics.

House Republicans already have come down on the side of ideology. When the $286 billion bill passed the House late last month on a vote of 231-191, only 19 of 202 GOP lawmakers supported it.

Republican fiscal conservatives balked at the bill's generous subsidies to farmers at a time of record-high crop prices and the huge increases for environmental and nutrition programs, all to be financed by a tax increase that drew a veto threat from President Bush.

"I want to vote for the farm bill. I want to help farmers," U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Grantville, said last week. "(But) I just couldn't make myself do it."

It wasn't an easy vote for Westmoreland.

Farmers in his 3rd Congressional District received $151.1 million in crop subsidies from 2003 to 2005. Only 56 of the 435 congressional districts get more federal largesse out of the current farm bill.

But Republicans in the Senate are in an even tougher position. Many GOP senators hail from farm states, where every farmer is a constituent and a potential voter.

For Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the challenge when the Senate takes up the farm bill following a month-long recess will be finding a way to keep the subsidies flowing that doesn't involve higher taxes.

"We're not going to raise taxes on anybody to put in a farm bill," said Chambliss, who will play a major role in the upcoming debate as ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. "We're going to take savings we've been able to achieve from other programs."

House Democrats faced a difficult challenge in putting together the farm bill, a reauthorization measure that Congress enacts every five years.

For one thing, they began with a baseline that was $60 billion below what Congress had to work with in 2002, said U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany.

Also, under the "pay-go" rules adopted by the new Democratic majority in January, any spending increases the House approves must be offset either by cuts elsewhere in the budget or additional revenue.

While House Democrats faced those spending limits, there was also pressure to address the needs of Democratic constituencies.

In addition to $42 billion in crop subsidies and other direct aid to farmers, the legislation that cleared the House would provide $190 billion for food stamps and other nutrition programs, $29 billion for research and energy programs and rural development and $25 billion for conservation programs, an effort to create a "greener" farm bill.

To find the money to pay for all of that, the bill would prohibit subsidies to farmers whose incomes average more than $1 million a year, a substantial reduction from the current income limit of $2.5 million.

House Democrats argue that $1 million is a reasonable compromise considering that the Bush administration is pushing to cut off subsidies above incomes of $200,000 a year.

Taxpayer groups pushing to rein in government subsidies side with the White House, citing statistics showing that the $1 million threshold would affect only about 7,000 farmers.

But Chambliss, who called the president's proposal a "non-starter," said it's precisely those large farmers who are producing most of America's food.

He said about 90 percent of U.S. farm output comes from fewer than 20 percent of farmers.

"It's those people who put their money at risk," he said.

Chambliss said he will push for an income limit on subsidies somewhere between the $1 million in the House bill and the current $2.5 million limit.

Even the $1 million proposal from House Democrats, however, is contingent upon a tax increase aimed at foreign-based multinational businesses with U.S. subsidiaries.

Westmoreland said the jobs of 176,000 Georgians depend on those companies.

"A big tax hike discourages job creation," he said.

But Bishop said the money has to come from somewhere, and House Democrats at least found a limited, targeted tax increase to supply the revenue necessary to provide farmers with a needed safety net.

"You get what you pay for," he said. "If you want to have a good farm bill, you have to invest the cost."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.