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.