By Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON - The House voted on Wednesday to cut food stamps by $2 billion a year as part of a wide-ranging farm bill.
The chamber rejected 234-188 a Democratic amendment to the five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm legislation that would have maintained current spending on food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The overall bill cuts the $80 billion-a-year program by about 3 percent and makes it harder for some people to qualify.
The food stamp cuts have complicated passage of the bill and its farm-state supporters were working to secure votes Wednesday. Many conservatives have said the food stamp cuts do not go far enough since the program has doubled in cost in the last five years and now feeds 1 in 7 Americans. Liberals have argued against any reductions, contending the House plan could take as many as 2 million needy recipients off the rolls. The White House has threatened a veto over the food stamp cuts.
The amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and other Democrats would have eliminated the SNAP cuts and taken the money from farm subsidies instead.
"It's too big, it's too harsh and it's going to hurt so many people," McGovern said of the food aid cuts.
Other amendments chipped away at the program. The House adopted by voice vote an amendment to require drug tests for SNAP recipients, angering Democrats who said the tests would be demeaning to people who apply for the food aid. Lawmakers also adopted by voice vote an amendment that would end a 2004 U.S.-Mexico agreement to educate Mexican-Americans about food stamps. More amendments are expected to try and scale back the program.
Also complicating passage is growing Republican opposition to farm subsidies, some of which are expanded under the bill. Republicans have proposed amendments that would cut back dairy and sugar supports that could turn lawmakers from certain regions of the country against the bill if they were to succeed.
The House is scheduled to continue voting on 103 amendments to the bill Thursday with a vote on passage possibly next week. As of Wednesday, it was unclear if Republicans had enough votes.
In an effort to push the legislation through, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week that he would vote for it, while making it clear that he did not really like it. He said he wants to get the bill to House and Senate negotiators for a potential deal, and that passing the bill was better than doing nothing.
The legislation would cut around $4 billion a year in overall spending on farm and nutrition programs. The Senate passed its version of the farm bill last week, with about $2.4 billion a year in overall cuts and a $400 million annual decrease in the SNAP program - about a fifth of the amount of the House food stamp cuts.
Democratic leaders have said they will wait to see how the House votes on the many amendments, but have so far signaled opposition to the measure. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California argued against the food stamp cuts on the floor Wednesday and was a "likely no" on the bill, according to an aide. No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland called the food stamp cuts "irresponsible."
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told colleagues that a robust farm policy was necessary to avoid farm crises like those in the 1930s and 1980s.
"I will work with all of you to improve this draft," he said Tuesday. "I ask you to work with me."
The legislation would achieve some of the food stamp cuts by partially eliminating what is called categorical eligibility, or giving people automatic food stamp benefits when they sign up for certain other programs. The bill would end a practice in some states of giving low-income people as little as $1 a year in home heating assistance, even when they don't have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits.
Lucas said the cuts would still allow people who qualify to apply for food stamps, they just wouldn't automatically get them.
The Oklahoma Republican has called the overall legislation the "most reform-minded bill in decades" because it would make needed cuts to food stamps and eliminate $5 billion a year in direct payments, subsidies that are paid to farmers whether they grow or not. The bill would expand crop insurance and makes it easier for rice and peanut farmers to collect subsidies.
The bill also sets policy for international food aid abroad, which is currently shipped from U.S. farms. The House rejected an amendment to shift around half of international food aid money to more flexible accounts that allow for cash purchases abroad.
The Obama administration has proposed shifting the way the food aid is distributed, saying it would be more efficient to make purchases closer to conflict areas.