Senate Votes on Food Stamps Could Mean Larger Cuts Coming

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. points to pictures of devastations in New York from Superstorm Sandy as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, before the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing to examine Superstorm Sandy, focusing on response and recovery and progress and challenges. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)  
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
May 21, 2013, 6:30 p.m.

In de­bate on the farm bill Tues­day, the Sen­ate re­jec­ted a Re­pub­lic­an pro­pos­al to in­crease cuts in the food-stamp pro­gram. But it re­jec­ted by an even big­ger mar­gin a Demo­crat­ic ini­ti­at­ive to elim­in­ate the food-stamp re­duc­tion al­to­geth­er.

The votes could pave the way for the Sen­ate to agree in con­fer­ence with the House to a cut in the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, more com­monly known as food stamps, that is lar­ger than the $4 bil­lion over 10 years cur­rently in the bill on the Sen­ate floor.

The Sen­ate bill would save the $4 bil­lion largely by tight­en­ing up on the state-gov­ern­ment prac­tice of ty­ing food-stamp be­ne­fit levels to en­ergy as­sist­ance.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., pro­posed an amend­ment to in­crease the cut in food stamps from $4 bil­lion to $31 bil­lion. The amend­ment would have ended the use of en­ergy as­sist­ance as a basis for food-stamp be­ne­fit levels and elim­in­ated oth­er prac­tices and pro­grams.

Roberts said that the amend­ment “would help rein in the largest ex­pendit­ure with­in the USDA budget,” but Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she strongly op­posed the amend­ment. It failed in a 58-40 vote.

The Sen­ate then voted on an amend­ment offered by Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand, D-N.Y., to elim­in­ate the $4 bil­lion cut in food stamps and pay for the in­creased cost with a cut to the crop-in­sur­ance pro­gram. Gil­librand has called her cam­paign to stop any food-stamp cut a “mor­al” is­sue, but Stabenow, who had ar­gued that the states have been tak­ing ad­vant­age of the sys­tem, op­posed the move.

Stabenow, who fa­vors ex­tend­ing crop in­sur­ance to a broad­er range of crops, in­clud­ing fruits and ve­get­ables, said that cuts in both food stamps and crop in­sur­ance should be lim­ited to elim­in­at­ing fraud and ab­use. While a third of the Sen­ate co­sponsored Gil­librand’s amend­ment, only 26 sen­at­ors voted for it and 70 op­posed it.

The Sen­ate’s de­cision to give Gil­librand few­er votes than Roberts would seem to open the door to a big­ger cut to the food-stamp pro­gram.

The bill ap­proved by the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee would cut a total of $20.5 bil­lion from food stamps by tight­en­ing up qual­i­fic­a­tion stand­ards. The size of the food-stamp cut that will emerge from the House floor de­bate is un­cer­tain, however, be­cause tea-party-ori­ented House Re­pub­lic­ans want an even big­ger cut, per­haps $36 bil­lion over 10 years, while lib­er­al House Demo­crats want to elim­in­ate all cuts or mir­ror the cuts in the Sen­ate bill.

Get­ting her col­leagues to agree to vote on food stamps on only the second day of de­bate on the farm bill was an ac­com­plish­ment for Stabenow, but dis­cus­sion and votes on crop in­sur­ance, sug­ar, dairy, and oth­er is­sues re­main.

“We will con­tin­ue to move for­ward do­ing everything pos­sible to com­plete this le­gis­la­tion by the end of the week,” Stabenow said.

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