WASHINGTON Congress responded speedily to voters' angst over rising grocery prices and $4-a-gallon gasoline Thursday, bucking President Bush's veto threats with lopsided votes to boost food stamps and farm subsidies after ordering Bush to quit pouring oil into the nation's emergency reserves.
Republicans, worried about steep losses in the fall elections, abandoned Bush on the votes.
"If you're running for office this year, obviously you want to demonstrate that you can put up a record of accomplishment that's based upon working with both sides of the political aisle," said Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota. "I think people, even those who don't necessarily represent farm states, also want to do something about energy, and they want to do something about the high cost of food."
Despite Bush's strong opposition, 35 of the Senate's 49 Republicans including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah voted Thursday with Democrats to pass and send to the White House a $290 billion farm bill that will increase food aid for the needy, as well as subsidies for farmers enjoying record-high incomes. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, voted against the measure.
A hundred Republicans in the House had voted in favor of the bill Wednesday, a day after the party's third straight loss of a long-held GOP seat to Democrats in special elections. The three House districts located in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi include rural farm areas. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, voted for the bill, while Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Chris Cannon, R-Utah, voted against it.
Both the House and Senate also overwhelmingly voted to temporarily halt daily shipments of 70,000 barrels of oil to the nation's emergency reserve held in underground salt domes along the Gulf Coast a move that Democrats have been seeking for the past year to increase supplies available for consumers. The Senate sent that measure to the president Wednesday night without a single GOP objection.
In the farm bill, rising food costs put political pressure on lawmakers to boost money for food stamps and other nutrition programs. The bill's fate appeared bleak until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intervened and forced farm-state negotiators to divert money from farm subsidies to food programs.
That brought the support of not only urban Democrats but also Republicans from all areas of the nation, many of whom are growing more nervous about their re-election prospects in November.
Pelosi said before the House vote that she was not satisfied that the bill does enough to reduce subsidies, but "if there is one reason for you to vote for this bill, it would be because of the nutrition piece of it."
On the oil-reserve vote, Democrats also easily won, as key Republicans lent support.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently joined Democrats on the issue, as did Sen. Pete Domenici, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"In the past, I have not advocated for such a proposal, but the high cost of gasoline has fundamentally changed the equation," Domenici said earlier this week.
Bush has refused to halt the shipment of about 70,000 barrels of oil a day into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, saying it was such a small amount that it had no impact on gasoline or crude oil prices.
Lawmakers acknowledged in debate on the issue this week that suspending the deliveries into the stockpile was a small step in response to oil prices of nearly $125 a barrel and gasoline threatening to go to $4 a gallon.
Nevertheless, the Senate on Tuesday voted 97-1 to suspend the deliveries, and the House followed hours later by a vote of 385-25. It's one of the few energy issues on which Democrats and Republicans have been able to agree.
Bush has indicated he will sign the reserve measure, but he has remained more obstinate on the $290 billion farm legislation. He has said he will veto it, contending it is fiscally irresponsible and too generous to wealthy corporate farmers in a time of record crop prices.
About two-thirds of the bill would pay for domestic nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. An additional $40 billion is for farm subsidies, while almost $30 billion would go to farmers to idle their land and to other environmental programs.
Congress has overridden only one veto, on a water projects bill, during Bush's two terms.