More than 50 American billionaires can breathe easier now that Congress is set to keep the farm-subsidy spigot open for them and other wealthy folks who get government checks originally intended to help small, struggling farmers.

Despite a lot of rhetoric about reform, neither the Senate, which finished its work on the mammoth farm bill this week, nor the House did anything to change rules that allowed at least 56 billionaires to reap more than $2 million in agriculture handouts in 2003 to 2005 alone.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, hotel czar William Barron Hilton and at least five members of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s family will remain eligible for the payments unless a House-Senate conference committee does something unexpected, or President Bush vetoes the whole $286 billion bill.

Christmas dinner for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those in nearby Bahrain, Dubai and Djibouti, will be a $5 million feast that, in toto, will consist of 304,000 pounds of turkey, 153,000 pounds of beef, 103,000 pounds of shrimp, 104,000 pounds of corn and 137,000 pies.

Though duty “downrange” in Iraq is the toughest that U.S. forces have faced in decades, one of the few things drawing no complaints is the food. Except at remote outposts, the troops’ chow is plentiful, whether served in dining facilities or at Burger King and other junk-food joints that have set up shop at some bases.

That may be why, according to the newspaper Navy Times, U.S. troops are gaining an average of 10 pounds on their deployments. Cholesterol levels also reportedly are soaring.

A group of 10 Nobel laureates and dozens of other eminent American scientists called this past week for a presidential debate devoted to scientific issues. Climate change, stem cells, space travel, global pandemics, the future of the oceans — all are subjects of major importance that White House hopefuls rarely weigh in on, says ScienceDebate2008, which is collecting signatures to encourage such a meaty discussion by the candidates.

In what some are calling the “Homer Simpson policy,” the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has put out the word to operators of nuclear-power plants that they better take steps to make sure their security officers aren’t falling asleep on the job.

Reports have surfaced recently that some guards are about as attentive on duty as cartoon character Simpson is in his job as a nuclear-power-plant safety inspector. One former guard at the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in York County, Pa., videotaped some of his fellow officers napping while at work.

The NRC says the guards are just one in multiple layers of defense, but nonetheless directed Thursday that all plant operators must report on what they are doing to keep security and other personnel alert at all times.

Unlike several charities identified by the American Institute of Philanthropy as directing too little of their donations to veterans, the foundation created by the Fisher House Foundation earned an A plus. One of the least heralded, but most remarkable, efforts to help U.S. troops injured or sickened in service, it is known by every soldier as the generous group that builds and donates “comfort houses” at bases across the country, where military kin can stay while loved ones are being treated.

The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund — an offshoot of the foundation established by New York real estate magnate Zachary Fisher — has also built a state-of-the-art, $40 million physical rehabilitation facility in Texas that is helping amputees and others hurt in Iraq and Afghanistan recover.

Now, the Fisher fund is planning a high-tech, $50 million rehab center for those suffering from traumatic brain injuries. The group gets guidance from the Pentagon, but is able to build and outfit these facilities in a matter of months, compared to the years it takes the government to do so.

(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanl(at) SHNS correspondent Lee Bowman contributed to this column.)