MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press
WASHINGTON - House Republican leaders bruised by the defeat of a massive farm bill last month are working to quickly revive the measure with a vote on a pared-down version that avoids an immediate showdown on food stamp cuts.
Just hours before Thursday's expected floor vote, it was still unclear whether GOP leaders had the 218 votes needed to pass the new measure containing only farm programs. The food stamp part of the legislation would be dealt with separately at a later date.
The legislation faces a veto threat from the White House anyhow, and House Democrats have reacted angrily to the last-minute move by the GOP.
As late as Thursday morning, conservative groups and farm groups traditionally aligned with Republicans were also lobbying against the measure, as was the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson.
In an apparent effort to stem that opposition to the bill, the leaders were planning to move quickly. The new legislation was released late Wednesday and a vote was expected by early afternoon. No amendments were to be allowed.
The dropped food stamp section would have made a 3 percent cut to the $80 billion-a-year feeding program. Many Republicans say that isn't enough since the program's cost has doubled in the last five years. Democrats have opposed any cuts. The food stamp program doesn't need legislation to continue, but Congress would have to pass a bill to enact reforms.
The White House said food stamps should not be left out of the bill. The Obama administration had also threatened to veto the original bill, saying it did not include enough reductions to farm subsidies and the food stamp cuts were too severe.
The split bill is an attempt to gather support from conservatives who voted against the $100 billion-a-year farm bill. The House rejected the farm bill in June by a vote of 234-195, with 62 Republicans voting against it.
The idea of a split bill is that the farm portion, which would cost about $20 billion a year and contain about $2 billion a year in cuts to farm subsidies, could pass without the food stamp provisions. Republicans would then be able to make bigger cuts in food stamp programs, the thinking goes, and pass that bill with conservative support.
Conservative advocacy groups weren't convinced, however. The Club for Growth and Heritage Action said they would use a vote for the bill against Republicans in upcoming campaigns, maintaining that the idea was a ruse to get the bill in conference with the Democratic-led Senate, where food stamps will be added back in with smaller cuts.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed a farm bill last month with only a half-percent cut to food stamps and would be reluctant to go along with a split bill or further cuts to the programs.
A memo sent out by Heritage Action Thursday morning targeted the only new provision in the revised farm bill - a repeal of farm laws from the 1930s and 1940s that kick in when current farm law expires. Farm-state lawmakers have kept those laws on the books so there would be incentive to pass new farm bills and avoid expiration, but the threat of outdated policies kicking in has been a headache for farmers who worry they can't depend on Congress to create new laws or extend more recent versions of the law.
Repealing those decades-old laws could mean that Congress would have little incentive to create new farm bills, however, and could make many farm programs permanent. The conservative groups seized on that point to try and dissuade Republicans from voting for the bill, saying many of those farm programs are costly.
"Market-distorting programs would continue indefinitely, like the government-imposed tariffs on sugar imports and quotas on domestic sugar production," read the Heritage Action memo.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman sent a letter to members Thursday morning saying that passing only half of the farm bill could make eventual passage of farm legislation impossible.
He said it was frustrating to the group's members that a broad agriculture coalition "appears to have been pushed aside in favor of interests that have no real stake in this farm bill."
Few Democrats are expected to vote for the measure. Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, called it a "bill to nowhere" since the Democratic Senate is likely to add the food stamp money back in.
"This dead-on-arrival messaging bill only seeks to accomplish one objective: to make it appear that Republicans are moving forward with important legislation even while they continue to struggle at governing," Hoyer said.
Peterson was urging his colleagues to vote no, saying he sees "no clear path to getting a bill passed by the House and Senate and signed by the president."
House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said as recently as last week that he opposed splitting the bill. But he has now reluctantly agreed to the strategy, saying he would support it if his Republican leaders could deliver the votes. Late Wednesday, he gave a reserved endorsement of the plan to the GOP-controlled Rules Committee, which determines the procedures for floor debate.
"Maybe the old dynamic of how we have done things since 1965 isn't valid anymore," he said. "Maybe it is time to try something different."
Lucas said as he left the meeting just before midnight Wednesday that he didn't know if the leadership had the 218 votes necessary for passage.
Farm groups and anti-hunger groups have warned that separating the farm and nutrition programs after decades of linking them would be misguided. Rural lawmakers have long added money for food stamps to the farm bill, which sets policy for agricultural subsidies and other farm programs, to gather urban votes for the measure.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last week, more than 500 farm groups asked the GOP leadership not to split the legislation.
Lucas said he hopes a food stamp bill would come to the floor quickly, so the House and Senate can begin negotiations and get a farm bill passed.
"The quicker that second bill is passed the easier it is to complete the whole process," he said.