WASHINGTON — Congress gave decisive final approval Wednesday to a five-year farm bill praised by some as a significant step toward reducing costly subsidies but attacked by others as a continuation of programs that have helped bring depression to rural America.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said he believes President Reagan will sign the measure, whose three-year crop subsidy costs are projected to run $2 billion above the President's $50-billion target.
However, a White House spokesman said that the President still is assessing the 1,397-page bill.
Besides trimming about $3 billion a year from current commodity support programs, the legislation would increase food stamp benefits, expand food export efforts and institute a strong new soil and water conservation program.
Dole said that he hopes Reagan will stage a ceremony this week to sign both the farm bill and a related bail-out measure for the Farm Credit System.
"It would be sort of a double-barreled message to American farmers that the President is concerned about their welfare," Dole told the Senate shortly before it passed the compromise farm bill, 55 to 38.
However, many lawmakers believe that deep cuts will be forced on farm subsidy programs, beginning in only a few months, by newly enacted deficit-reduction legislation sponsored by Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.).
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) voted against the bill, he said, because subsidy levels were kept too high. "A lot of people voted for this only because Gramm-Rudman passed, and they figure the big fat farm bill will be one of the first targets of the Gramm-Rudman shears," he said.
But the farm bill does include a lot of "good things" for California farmers, among them enhanced export assistance, Wilson said. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who was also critical of the bill's costs, nevertheless voted for it.
Hours before the Senate acted, the House approved the measure, 325 to 96, in one of the most lopsided farm-bill votes ever cast by the urban-dominated body.
The House, by voice vote, also cleared for the President's expected signature the Farm Credit System measure. It would permit billions of dollars in federal aid for the huge farmer-owned lending network, if new self-help tools fail to restore profitability.
Besides Dole, several other lawmakers predicted that Reagan would reluctantly sign the farm bill, criticizing its cost while applauding the gradual reductions it makes in commodity price supports and direct income subsidies received by many farmers.
Some also figured that Reagan would decide against a veto out of sympathy for thousands of debt-ridden farmers--and political concern for vulnerable Republicans facing reelection next year. Eight GOP farm-state senators have been targeted by Democrats, who plan to ride the farm issue hard in their bid to regain control of the Senate.
Rep. Edward R. Madigan of Illinois, senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said that "it would be a political disaster in the Farm Belt for Republicans if he vetoes this bill." Madigan said he was told that Agriculture Secretary John R. Block had recommended that the President sign it.
Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) said Reagan had suggested Tuesday that he might sign the legislation if enough House Republicans reversed themselves and helped a tax revision bill get through the House.
"The President said he hadn't had a lot of time to look at the farm bill but he would be in a much better mood when he looks at it if the tax bill passes the House," Gunderson aide Jim Reck said. Gunderson voted to allow House consideration of the tax measure, which eventually passed by voice vote.
In floor speeches Wednesday, not even supporters of the farm bill expressed much enthusiasm for it.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) noted that the bill falls far short of sweeping cutbacks in price and direct income supports proposed a year ago by Reagan. The President contended that a "market-oriented" policy of lower prices would make U.S. crops more competitive in foreign markets, boosting exports and farmer income.
"Despite its shortcomings, this bill contains many significant reforms and signals the intention of Congress to make a transition to a market-oriented policy," Helms said.
Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.), noting that a "safety net" of direct income subsidies would be maintained for two years before gradual cuts begin, said that "this is a hold-the-line measure to buy time for agriculture to work its way out of crisis."
Opposing the bill, Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) said it provides "the same old tired programs" that would not improve farm income or cut burgeoning surpluses of wheat, corn and other feed grains. Moreover, he complained, the bill does not bar subsidies to large farms, which need them least.
"What farmers need are bold new programs that lead us out of the morass," Glickman said.