The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives defied a White House veto threat and passed a Farm Bill Thursday that expands the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance system but omitted food stamps for the poor.
Lawmakers passed the 608-page bill, unveiled by Republican leaders late on Wednesday night, on a 216-208, party-line vote after two hours of debate in which no amendments were allowed.
Republican leaders said food stamps, traditionally part of the Farm Bill, would be handled later and that, for now, they needed a way to start negotiations with the Senate over a compromise bill.
Democrats said the real intent of the action was to isolate food stamps for large cuts in funding.
The bill was drafted to attract the support of fiscally conservative Republicans who helped defeat an earlier version on June 20, putting the bill in limbo.
Backers such as Frank Lucas, the House agriculture committee chairman, said the farm subsidy bill would save $14 billion over 10 years and streamline conservation programs (all figures US$).
“We have here today another opportunity,” said Lucas, who said he would try to write a food stamp bill. “Give us a chance. Let the place work.”
Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, said the bill was “an honest attempt” to move to final-round negotiations with the Senate. Food stamps could be included in the House-Senate compromise, he said.
Senate agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said the House bill “is not a real Farm Bill” but she would negotiate with the House for a compromise bill. The Senate Farm Bill, which includes food stamps, saves $24 billion.
House speaker John Boehner declined to say if leaders would allow a vote on a farm bill with larger food stamp spending than his party liked. “We’ll get to that later,” he told reporters.
Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern said he believed conservatives were promised a chance to strive for deeper cuts to food stamps in upcoming legislation. The defeated earlier version of the Farm Bill would have ended benefits for two million people, or about four per cent of recipients.
“A vote for this bill is a vote to end nutrition programs in America,” said Rose DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, “You are taking food out of the mouths of your own poor constituents. What are you thinking?”
At latest count, 47.6 million people, or nearly one in seven Americans, received food stamps at an average of $132 a month, equal to $4.25 a day.
Enrolment has doubled since 2004 and the cost of the program, $74 billion last year, has tripled. Fiscally conservative lawmakers say the price tag is unbearable when the federal deficit must be reduced. Defenders say high enrolment reflects continued high jobless rates and slow economic growth.
In a statement late on Wednesday, the White House threatened to veto the House bill because it “does not contain sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms” and omitted food stamps, formally named the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
— Charles Abbott is a Reuters correspondent covering U.S. agricultural policy in Washington, D.C. Additional reporting for Reuters by Richard Cowan in Washington.