WASHINGTON --House lawmakers approved a $956.4 billion farm bill Wednesday that makes significant changes to the nation's farm support programs, but also cuts billions of dollars in federal food stamp aid.
The measure passed, 251 to 166, amid opposition from liberals, who said the food stamp cuts go too far, and conservatives, who were concerned that the legislation failed to further curtail government spending.
The bill now heads to the Senate, which is expected to give final approval by Friday and send the measure to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature -- more than two years behind schedule.
Congress last passed a farm bill in 2008, and the new measure continues the congressional tradition of marrying the nation's agricultural policy with money for the federal food stamp program, which usually accounts for about 80 percent of the bill's funding.
This week's votes cap more than three years of negotiations on a new five-year agreement. The 939-page bill authorizes the end of direct government payments made to farmers, revamps and consolidates dozens of federal conservation programs, tweaks several subsidy programs for the nation's crops and cuts billions of dollars in federal food stamp money.
The measure is expected to cut federal spending by $16 billion over the next decade, according to official government estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.
House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., on Wednesday called the bill a victory for the nation's farmers, and for lawmakers eager to restore order to the institution.
"This bill, done in what I would like to define as regular order, ... may not have everything that my friends on the right would want or my friends on the left would want, but it represents making the process work. Achieving consensus. Putting into place policies that are better than were there before," he said.
Lawmakers devoted just one hour of debate to the bill Wednesday morning. Several Democrats spoke in opposition to the $8 billion in cuts to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Most of the cuts come by adjusting how states dole out federal heating assistance payments that can be tied to federal food aid. The changes will affect roughly 850,000 low-income households nationwide, according to CBO estimates.
In response to years of embarrassing reports about fraud and abuse of SNAP benefits, the measure establishes new pilot programs to encourage recipients to seek new jobs and bars the Agriculture Department from spending money to recruit new beneficiaries or to advertise the benefits on television, radio and billboards. The USDA also will need to ensure that illegal immigrants, lottery winners, college students and the dead cannot receive food stamps, and that people cannot collect benefits in multiple states.
Margarette Purvis, CEO of the Food Bank for New York City, warned this week that the changes would affect almost 300,000 New York families, who "will now be forced to choose between having heat in their homes during the bitter cold winter months or buying groceries. Charity simply cannot make up for this cut."
And Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a longtime liberal champion of the poor, said Wednesday that the measure will needlessly burden "working families who will face an empty fridge and annoying pain in their stomach for weeks and weeks."
"If you vote for this bill, you will have to look them in the eye and tell them to go without food, to endure hunger, because we had to give more handouts to millionaires and billionaires," she added.
Dozens of Democratic lawmakers from urban areas in New York, California, Illinois, Texas and New England states, where the food stamp cuts will have the most effect, voted against the measure. A few dozen fiscally conservative Republicans who normally vote against large government spending bills also voted no.
Watching the vote Wednesday morning from the House chamber was Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who will be responsible for guiding the legislation through the Senate.