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House could vote soon on farm bill: Roadblocks remain as expiration date looms

The House of Representatives appears poised to vote on a bill to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years, possibly creating the groundwork for a farm bill conference with the Senate and passage of a bill later this year.

But there still are major roadblocks along the way to passage of the bill, which would replace the extension of the 2008 farm bill that expires on Sept. 30. The expiration would not cause immediate problems for farmers, but if no action is taken by Jan. 1, antiquated 1938 and 1949 permanent laws would come into effect, forcing an increase in milk prices.

The prospect of higher milk prices led to this year’s extension of both the farm program and food stamps without cuts to either program.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has pushed the effort to make a big cut to food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., said last week that the Republican leaders had started asking Republican members for their commitment on the bill.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the highest ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said he will oppose the measure. Peterson’s opposition means no Democrats are likely to vote for it. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she will “absolutely” encourage Democrats to oppose it, but organizing Democrats against it is not really necessary because “the momentum is springing from our members.”

Making such a big cut to food stamps is “mean spirited,” Pelosi said, and Republicans are proposing it “because they don’t want to touch one hair on the head of the wealthiest people in America. It’s just a bad idea.”

Since the 1970s, farm bills have included both the farm program and a nutrition title including food stamps and commodity distribution programs. But the House failed to pass a comprehensive farm bill in July, primarily because Republican members said it did not cut food stamps enough.

That bill would have cut at least $20 billion over 10 years from a program that is expected to cost $760 billion over 10 years if there are no changes.

In July, the House passed a farm program-only farm bill, but all House Democrats, including Peterson, opposed it because it did not reauthorize nutrition programs.

The Senate has already passed a farm bill, cutting only $4 billion from food stamps, and appointed conferees on the bill. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has promised to appoint House conferees after the vote on nutrition.

Controversy and sensitivity

The farm bill continues to cause political controversy in the House.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he would vote for the Cantor measure, but warned that there would have to be a compromise with the Senate and with President Barack Obama. Lucas noted that Obama is “sensitive” on the food stamp issue and that Congress has to pass a farm bill that Obama will sign. In 2008, Congress overrode President George W. Bush’s veto of the bill, but Lucas noted that this year there is not the political unity to repeat that.

The battles over the farm bill have created bitterness between House Republicans and conservative groups. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, urged the House to split the farm bill into two parts. But after the House leadership did exactly that, Heritage still urged members to vote against the farm program-only bill, saying it did not cut farm programs enough. The Republican Study Committee, a conservative group of House members, subsequently banned Heritage employees from its meetings.

Last week, the Heritage Foundation urged another extension of the farm bill, saying both the House and Senate bills are so flawed that a conference would not produce a decent bill.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week he hopes the House nutrition bill fails because the reduction is so big it would “capture folks that genuinely need the help.” Under current law, a group of people known as “able-bodied adults without dependents” can get food stamps only three months out of every three years, but the states with high unemployment rates can ask for waivers to provide food stamps for longer periods.

The Cantor bill would stop the states from requesting the waivers and also from easing the path for people who get other welfare payments for food stamps. A Cantor memo said the able-bodied adults getting food stamps include surfers, but anti-hunger advocates said the category is more likely to include troubled and poor homeless war veterans. 

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