Approved Farm Bill Delays Food Stamp Fight

WASHINGTON (AP) -
Congress returned to work at the Capitol this week. The House passed a scaled-down version of a large farm bill, postponing a fight over food-stamp spending. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Congress returned to work at the Capitol this week. The House passed a scaled-down version of a large farm bill, postponing a fight over food-stamp spending. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The House passed a scaled-down version of a massive farm bill Thursday, putting off a fight over food-stamp spending and giving Republican leaders a victory after a decisive defeat on the larger bill last month.

The GOP leaders scrambled to get the bill to the floor and gather enough votes after deciding to drop a politically sensitive food-stamp section of the bill and pass legislation that contained only farm programs.

They faced significant opposition to the plan from Democrats, farm groups and conservative groups that threatened to use the vote against GOP members in future campaigns. But Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) guided his colleagues to a narrow 216-208 vote by convincing Republican members that this was the best chance to get the bill passed and erase the embarrassment of the June defeat.

Any other path to passage would most likely have included concessions to Democrats who
opposed the original bill.

Last month, 62 Republicans voted against the original $100 billion-a-year bill after Boehner and Cantor supported it. Only 12 Republicans voted against the new measure and no Democrats voted for it.

Republicans said the food stamp part of the legislation would be dealt with separately at a later date, and Cantor said after the vote that Republicans would “act with dispatch” to get that legislation to the floor.

Splitting the popular farm bill from the controversial food stamp cuts, and releasing the bill’s text at 8 p.m. EDT on the eve of the scheduled vote Thursday, denied conservatives the time to rally opposition to it. But the bill’s prospects remained a tense question through the day.

Before the vote, Boehner acknowledged that the process was unusual but said, “My goal right now is to get a farm bill passed.”

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 changes.

The idea of a split bill was to pass the farm programs — the Congressional Budget Office calculates they would cost about $20 billion a year and contain about $1.3 billion a year in cuts to farm subsidies — and take up the food stamp portion later. Republicans could then be able to make bigger cuts to the food programs and pass that bill with conservative support.

In voting for the bill, conservative lawmakers made the unusual move of bucking the conservative groups Club for Growth and Heritage Action, both of which said they would use a “yes” vote against Republicans in future campaigns. While those groups originally supported the idea of dropping the food stamps and taking that part of the bill up separately, they later said the GOP 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.

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.

The vote was a welcome victory for Republicans who have struggled to bring their majority together on even bigger issues like immigration and the budget.

“Thank G-d, we can do something!” exclaimed Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) as he walked off the floor after the final vote.