WASHINGTON - A House plan to make major cuts to food stamps would be scaled back under a bipartisan agreement on a massive farm bill, a near end to a more than two-year fight that has threatened to hurt rural lawmakers in an election year.
The measure announced Monday by the House and Senate Agriculture committees preserves food stamp benefits for most Americans who receive them and continues generous subsidies for farmers. The House could vote on the bill as soon as Wednesday.
The compromise was expected to cut food stamps by about $800 million a year, or around 1 per cent. The House in September passed legislation cutting 5 per cent from the $80 billion-a-year program. The House bill also would have allowed states to implement broad new work requirements for food stamp recipients. That has been scaled back to a test program in 10 states.
The Democratic-led Senate had twice passed a bill with only $400 million in annual food stamp cuts, and had signalled it would not go much higher. The White House had threatened to veto the House level of food stamp cuts.
Republican House leaders are seeking to put the long-stalled bill behind them and build on the success of a bipartisan budget passed earlier this month. Leaders in both parties were also hoping to bolster rural candidates in this year's midterm elections.
The final bill released Monday would cost almost $100 billion a year over five years, with a cut of around $2.3 billion a year from current spending.
Still unclear was how Republicans would get the votes they needed to pass the final bill on the House floor. The full House rejected an earlier version of the farm bill in June after conservative Republicans said cuts to food stamps weren't high enough — and that bill had more than two times the cuts than those in the compromise bill announced Monday.
Some of those conservatives were certain to oppose the lower cuts to food stamps, along with many of the farm subsidies the bill offered.
While many liberal Democrats were expected to vote against the legislation, saying the food stamp cuts were too high, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have attempted a balanced bill to attract votes from the more moderate wings of both parties. They have touted the bill's savings and the elimination of a $5 billion-a-year farm subsidy called direct payments, which are now paid to farmers whether they farm or not.
The bill would continue to heavily subsidize major crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton — while shifting many of those subsidies toward more politically defensible insurance programs. That means farmers would have to incur losses before they received a payout.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House leaders who have wavered on different aspects of the bill over the past several years now appear to be supportive of its passage.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., issued a statement in support of the bill. He blamed the Senate for not accepting the House's attempted changes to the food stamp program but said the legislation would "extend these important agriculture programs, achieve deficit reduction, and help give many Americans an opportunity to achieve independence and get back to work."
There were early signs Monday that despite the short time between the bill's release and the expected House vote Wednesday, some groups would work to build opposition.
A coalition of powerful meat and poultry groups, generally strong supporters of the legislation, said Monday they would work against the bill after the heads of the agriculture panels did not include language to delay a labeling program that requires retailers to list the country of origin of meat. Meatpackers say it is too costly for the industry and have fought to have the program repealed in the farm bill.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. was positive as he said on the Senate floor Monday that the Senate would consider the final bill in the next several weeks.
The compromise "will reduce the deficit and cut waste and fraud, all while protecting hungry children and families," Reid said.