Food stamp cuts doom farm measure

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 8:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives failed to pass a sweeping five-year farm bill with sharp cuts to food stamps, a surprising development that sets the stage for an uphill fight in Congress to craft a new law.

The Republican-led House soundly rejected a $500 billion measure by a vote of 195-234, failing to muster enough support from Democrats and Republicans concerned over the size of the cuts to the country's popular food stamp program.

Top leaders on both sides of the aisle quickly engaged in a contentious bout of finger pointing with Republicans claiming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi failed to deliver the Democratic votes she promised while Democrats pinned the blame on the GOP for its inability to bring enough support from the more than 60 members within their own party who opposed the bill.

“We clearly have a profound disagreement. Don't blame Democrats for the loss today,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland. “The reason the bill lost today is because 62 of your members rejected” a call to support the legislation.

Congress failed to pass a bill last year after GOP leaders in the House were reluctant to call for a vote because they did not think they had the 218 votes necessary to pass it. Lawmakers were forced to extend the old farm law through Sept. 30. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., told reporters House GOP leaders were mulling their options this time around, which could include voting on the farm bill passed by the Senate last week or moving forward on an extension.

House Republicans had expressed confidence in recent days that they had enough votes to pass the bill, but some of the blame Thursday was directed toward a pair of amendments, including one that would have required food stamp recipients to either work or look for work, for leading some members of Congress to withdraw their support. An aggressive push by the White House, which threatened Monday to veto the bill, likely lead some other Democrats to change their minds. Still, farm bill supporters were confident they could muster 40-60 Democrats to vote in favor of the bill. Instead, they garnered only 24.

“I believe we thought the votes were there. Our numbers looked good,” said Noem. “We thought that the Republican side was certainly bringing the votes that we could count on. What we really underestimated was the Democratic votes.”

Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, one of the few Democrats to support the bill, said he was “angry and frustrated” that members of the House failed to recognize the importance of passing a bill to support farmers and rural America. “While this farm bill was far from perfect, the best way to fix its flaws is to work together to find common ground — not reject it entirely and start from nothing,” he said.

The Senate bill would collectively reduce spending by about $2.4 billion annually, compared to $3.8 billion in the failed House bill. Almost half the savings in the House bill would have come from a reduction in food stamp spending — the first major overhaul to the program since 1996.

The Senate and House farm bills were largely similar when it comes to farm policy issues with both measures streamlining conservation programs, expanding the federally subsidized crop insurance program and slashing subsidy payments — including the elimination of the $5 billion a year in direct payments doled out to farmers regardless of whether they grow crops. In a bid to help Southern growers who depend on direct payments, each bill would set higher support prices for rice and peanut farmers, meaning growers would see subsidy payments kick in sooner.

But the divide between the two chambers on food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will likely continue to be a sticking point in determining whether the farm bill passes.

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