WASHINGTON (AP) â€” House passage of a massive farm bill could turn on the level of food stamp cuts as key backers scrambled Wednesday to secure support for the five-year, half-trillion dollar measure.
The House planned to begin voting on 103 amendments to the bill, including a Democratic proposal to eliminate $2 billion in annual cuts in the almost $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The bill would make it more difficult for some to qualify for food stamps while expanding some agriculture subsidies and setting policy for rural development programs.
Many conservatives have said the food stamp cuts do not go far enough since the program has doubled in cost in the last five years and now feeds one in seven Americans. Liberals have argued against any reductions, contending the House plan could take as many as 2 million needy recipients off the rolls. The White House has threatened a veto over the food stamp cuts, which are about 3 percent of the program.
The amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and other Democrats would eliminate the SNAP cuts and take the money from farm subsidies instead.
"It's too big, it's too harsh and it's going to hurt so many people," McGovern said of the food aid cuts.
Farm-state lawmakers are trying to win bipartisan backing for the measure, but are facing defections from both parties over the SNAP cuts. It was unclear whether Republican leaders would have the votes needed to pass the massive bill, and a final vote may not come until next week.
In an effort to push the legislation through, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week that he would vote for it, while making it clear that he did not really like it. He said he wants to get the bill to House and Senate negotiators for a potential deal, and that passing the bill was better than doing nothing.
The legislation would cut around $4 billion a year in overall spending on farm and nutrition programs. The Senate passed its version of the farm bill last week, with about $2.4 billion a year in overall cuts and a $400 million annual decrease in the SNAP program â€” about a fifth of the amount of the House food stamp cuts.
Democratic leaders have said they will wait to see how the House votes on the many amendments, but have so far signaled opposition to the measure. Pelosi argued against the food stamp cuts on the floor Wednesday and was a "likely no" on the bill, according to an aide. No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland called the food stamp cuts "irresponsible."
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told colleagues that a robust farm policy was necessary to avoid farm crises like those in the 1930s and 1980s.
"I will work with all of you to improve this draft," he said Tuesday. "I ask you to work with me."
The legislation would achieve some of the food stamp cuts by partially eliminating what is called categorical eligibility, or giving people automatic food stamp benefits when they sign up for certain other programs. The bill would end a practice in some states of giving low-income people as little as $1 a year in home heating assistance, even when they don't have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits.
Lucas said the cuts would still allow people who qualify to apply for food stamps, they just wouldn't automatically get them.
The Oklahoma Republican has called the overall legislation the "most reform-minded bill in decades." He said it would make needed cuts to food stamps and eliminate $5 billion a year in direct payments, subsidies that are paid to farmers whether they grow or not. The bill would expand crop insurance and makes it easier for rice and peanut farmers to collect subsidies.
Any changes to the delicate balance of farm subsidy support in the bill could cause lawmakers who represent the regions or crops affected to turn on the legislation. Amendments targeting sugar and dairy subsidies were expected to have contentious votes.
It has been more than five years since the House passed a farm bill. Since then, Republicans took control of the House and more than 200 new members have been elected; many are conservatives who replaced rural Democrats.
The politics of farm and food aid have also changed since then. Farm country is enjoying record-high prices and is one of the most profitable sectors of the economy, causing many lawmakers to question why farmers still receive more than $15 billion a year in subsidies. The food stamp program has doubled in cost as the economy has struggled.
If the bill fails, said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Congress will have to haggle over another extension of current law.
"If we can't get this through now, I don't know when we can," he said.
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick
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