The House narrowly completed its struggle to pass the food-stamps portion of its farm-bill reauthorization Thursday, with no Democrats voting to back a $39 billion cut to the program over 10 years.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that the entire measure, including a bill adopted earlier to address agriculture policy, will now be sent to the Senate as a result of the 217-210 vote, which saw 15 Republicans join Democrats in opposition. He said negotiations by conferees representing both chambers will begin on a final bill — and none too soon, because the existing extension expires Sept. 30.
When it comes to food stamps, the House and Senate are not close. The Senate's version of a farm bill cuts only about a tenth of what the House measure does from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, about $4 billion over 10 years. And Democrats who control the Senate already have signaled they don't plan to simply split the difference with the House version on a program that benefits more than 47 million Americans, or roughly one in seven.
"House Republicans are determined to gut the nutrition-assistance programs in the name of austerity, even though nine out of 10 recipients are families with children, senior citizens, or people with disabilities," complained Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday.
Some Democrats, such as Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, are labeling the Republican food-stamp cuts as "Cantor's bill." It's not a compliment. Rather, it's an attempt to tie its language directly to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., a prime author, and House conservatives they say these Democrats are holding up other important bills.
Cantor and other Republican supporters say their bill closes loopholes and reforms work and eligibility requirements for "able-bodied" adults. The idea, they say, is to eliminate fraud and waste, and not to take away food-stamp benefits from law-abiding beneficiaries who meet income and asset tests and who are willing to comply with its requirements.
"This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most," Cantor said, speaking on the House floor Thursday. He also said that the bill "points to the dignity of a job."
Overall, the House bill's projected $764 billion in total spending over 10 years for food stamps represents about 80 percent of the nearly $1 trillion price tag for the entire farm bill.
The start of a two-chamber conference on a new bill has been in limbo since this summer. That's when an earlier version of the House's farm bill carrying a more-modest $20.5 billion in food-stamp cuts over 10 years went down to defeat, owing to a lack of support from conservatives who believed the cuts did not go far enough and from Democrats who thought they went too far.
That earlier version had been advanced with bipartisan support in the House Agriculture Committee under the leadership of its chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. But when taken to the House floor for a vote, it could not overcome conservative opposition.
Boehner and other House GOP leaders, seeking to avoid the embarrassment of not having passed any version of a farm bill, then responded by stripping the nutritional programs from the House measure altogether, and were able to gain passage of an agriculture-programs-only measure.
Afterward, Cantor led a special working group to come up with a solution meant to satisfy House conservatives, which wound up being a plan to double the committee's food-stamp cuts. The only question mark for Republicans during the vote Thursday was whether too many of their moderates — if any — would abandon the bill. They did not.
The 15 Republicans who voted against the measure were Reps. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia; Mike Fitzpatrick and Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania; Jeffrey Fortenberry of Nebraska; Chris Gibson, Michael Grimm, Richard Hanna, and Peter King of New York; Walter Jones of North Carolina; Chris Smith and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey; David Valadao and Gary Miller of California; Frank Wolf of Virginia; and Don Young of Alaska.
As for Lucas — who as Agriculture chairman was, at least officially, managing the floor debate on the bill Thursday for Republicans — some Democrats expressed sympathy.
"I know you tried to bring a bipartisan bill to the floor," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said to Lucas. "What happened after that — well, I won't get into that." But Pelosi said the Republican proposal on the floor Thursday "is preying on people, on children, on veterans, on seniors — on all those who are struggling to do their best in our country."
For his part, Lucas seemed more intently focused on just getting a bill to a two-chamber conference, where a final version can be negotiated with the Senate.
"It is my hope to pass this bill so the farm bill [negotiation] process will continue," Lucas said, adding he would have preferred for this to happen a year ago.
"It should not be this hard to pass a bill to make sure the consumers in the country, and around the world, have enough to eat," he said. "But everything seems to be hard these days."