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 216-208 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 House debate 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, trying to silence the most strident Democrats, and were repeatedly forced to vote to uphold their own parliamentary rulings.
House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., 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 such a bill almost certainly would have to pass the House with significant GOP defections.
Asked before Thursday's vote whether he would allow a compromise bill to come to a final House vote, Speaker John Boehner, R-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 that depend on farm subsidies. "We wanted separation, and we got it," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., 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 Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. And Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the House measure "an insult to rural America."
Anti-hunger groups called passage of the farm bill without the food stamp program a disgrace. "Today's vote is the latest smoking gun that the House majority isn't truly interested in deficit reduction," said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. "They're interested in supporting special interest groups over hungry Americans."
The 608-page bill keeps changes that were in the version that failed 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 regardless of whether they plant crops.
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 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.
One new proposal from last month 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 to pass a farm bill or face large farm program expenditure increases. Without the provision, many lawmakers and farm groups fear that there would be no incentive for Congress to pass a farm bill on time.
One overlooked bill provision came from Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., a surgeon, and would require additional economic and scientific analyses before a 2010 law to improve the food safety system takes effect. Benishek spokesman Kyle Bonini said it was meant to protect farmers "from being hit with more costly regulations."
But food safety advocates said they were surprised by the provision, and that it would effectively halt implementation of the law, which gives the Food and Drug Administration greater authority over food production.
No Democrats voted for the measure Thursday, and 12 Republicans voted against it -- mainly the most conservative members, with a scattering of moderates.