House Approves Farm Bill, Without Food Stamp Program

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WASHINGTON -- Republicans muscled a pared-back agriculture bill through the House on Thursday, stripping out the food stamp program to satisfy recalcitrant conservatives but losing what little Democratic support the bill had when it failed last month. It was the first time food stamps had not been a part of the farm bill since 1973.

The 216-to-208 vote saved House Republican leaders from an embarrassing reprisal of the unexpected defeat of a broader version of the bill in June, but the future of agriculture policy remains uncertain. The food stamp program, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was 80 percent of the original bill's cost, and it remains the centerpiece of the Senate's bipartisan farm bill.

Even in a chamber used to acrimony, Thursday's debate in the House was particularly brutal. Democrats repeatedly called for roll-call votes on parliamentary procedures and motions to adjourn, delaying the final vote by hours and charging Republicans over and over again with callousness and cruelty.

Republicans shouted protests, tried to silence the most strident Democrats and were repeatedly forced to vote to uphold their own parliamentary rulings.

Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he would try to draft a separate food stamp bill "as soon as I can achieve a consensus." But conservatives remain determined to extract deep cuts to the program -- cuts that members of both parties in the House and Senate have said they cannot support.

House and Senate negotiators could produce a compromise measure with the robust food stamp program the Senate wants, but the bill would almost certainly have to pass the House with significant Republican defections.

Asked if he would allow such a bill to come to a final vote, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio shrugged and said: "If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas. You've heard that before. My goal right now is to get the farm bill passed. We'll get to those other issues later."

By splitting farm policy from food stamps, the House effectively ended the decades-old political marriage between urban interests concerned about nutrition and rural areas who depend on farm subsidies.

"We wanted separation, and we got it," said Representative Marlin Stutzman, Republican of Indiana, one of the bill's chief authors. "You've got to take these wins when you can get them."

Democrats denounced the bill as a naked attempt to make draconian cuts in the food stamp program.

"A vote for this bill is a vote to end nutrition in America," said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, called the House measure "an insult to rural America."

The 608-page bill keeps changes that were made last month, and amendments were not allowed. The bill would save about $20 billion by consolidating or cutting numerous farm subsidy programs, including $5 billion paid annually to farmers and landowners whether they plant crops or not.

The money saved from eliminating those payments would be directed into the $9 billion crop insurance program, and new subsidies would be created for peanut, cotton and rice farmers. The bill adds money to support fruit and vegetable growers, and it restores insurance programs for livestock producers, which expired in 2011, leaving thousands of operations without disaster coverage during last year's drought. The bill also made changes to a dairy program that sets limits to the amount of milk produced and sold in the United States.

The new proposal would also repeal a provision in the current farm bill, called "permanent law" that causes farm programs to revert to 1949 price levels if a new farm bill is not passed. Congress has traditionally maintained the provision to prod lawmakers into passing a farm bill or face large increases in farm program expenditures. Without the provision, many lawmakers and farm groups fear there would be no incentive for Congress to pass a farm bill on time.

No Democrats voted for the measure Thursday, and 12 Republicans voted against it – mainly the most conservative members, with a scattering of moderates. Republican discipline on the final vote was something of a rebuke to conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which had worked against the bill, even after food stamps were stripped out.

But that move engulfed a bill that for years had passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in acrimony.

"They cannot help themselves from turning nonpartisan, bipartisan legislation into 'my way or the highway,'" said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip.

And it cast doubt on the future of both food and nutrition programs.

In the early 1970s as rural members of Congress saw their numbers start to decline, a deal was struck to include food stamps in the farm bill so lawmakers would be able to muster enough votes to pass it. But a new breed of legislators, many of them elected in 2010 and backed by the Tea Party, are more concerned with federal spending than building coalitions to pass a farm bill. Both nutrition programs and farm subsidies have grown tremendously in the past 20 years.

Conservative and farm groups traditionally aligned with Republicans mostly came out against the farm bill.

Last week, 532 farm organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest farm group, called on lawmakers not to split the farm bill into two separate pieces of legislation. In a letter on Thursday, Bob Stallman, president of the Farm Bureau, called the split disappointing. But after the vote, Mr. Stallman said the group would move ahead with getting a new five-year farm bill.

"While we were hopeful the farm bill would not be split, nor permanent law repealed, we will now focus our efforts on working with lawmakers to deliver a farm bill to the president's desk for his signature by September," he said.

For different reasons, the Club for Growth also opposed the bill. Chris Chocola, the political action committee's president, said a new farm support program, called the "shallow loss" program, would guarantee farmers 90 percent of their income and "essentially locks in high commodity prices forevermore." He also protested that Republican leaders had refused to guarantee that the food stamp program would not be included in the final measure that comes out of negotiations with the Senate.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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