WASHINGTON — House Republicans protected $2 billion in annual cuts to the nation's food stamp program Wednesday as lawmakers began working their way through more than 100 amendments to the long-overdue farm bill.
A proposal to restore the $2 billion to food stamp spending failed 234-188, with nearly all Democrats in support and most Republicans in opposition.
The vote was a victory for Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, who is shepherding his first farm bill through full House debate as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. In the first day of voting on amendments, Lucas preserved his legislation from proposed changes to nutrition, conservation and farm payment programs.
Farm programs are running on a temporary extension since they expired last fall. Lucas' panel and the Senate Agriculture Committee have been forced to cut overall spending on the programs, and Lucas' bill would slash $20.5 billion over the next five years.
About 80 percent of the farm bill's cost is in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. The pairing of the food stamp program with safety-net programs for farmers has for decades helped rural lawmakers gain support from urban ones for farm bills.
Numerous outside groups have called for lawmakers to separate the nutrition programs from farm policy to give each more scrutiny. Some House members authored an amendment to do that, but they were not allowed to offer their proposal.
Many Democrats have said they would not back this farm bill because of the food stamp cuts, putting pressure on Lucas to garner strong support from Republicans.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., offered the amendment to restore $2 billion a year in funding to the food stamp program that would be cut under Lucas' bill. McGovern said the U.S. government spends $2 billion a week on aid to a “corrupt” government in Afghanistan.
The $2 billion cut, he said, would end nutrition assistance to 2 million people and 200,000 children who get subsidized meals at their schools. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, said food stamps boost the economy.
Republicans have been highly critical of growth in the program and efforts by the Obama administration to recruit people to sign up. Nearly 48 million people receive food stamps, compared to about 19 million in 2000.
Reid Ribble, R-Wis., said food stamp enrollment has continued to grow even though the economy has been recovering for the past few years. In Oklahoma, there were about 613,000 recipients in March — 16 percent of the population.
Feed The Children, the Oklahoma City-based charity, came out against the bill last week because of the food stamp cuts. The Obama administration has threatened to veto the bill, largely because of the cuts.
Lucas said his committee made reforms to the program to ensure people are qualified to receive the benefits, not to create hardship for the needy.
“We tried in the best way we could to achieve reform and help those who need the help,” Lucas said.
McGovern's amendment would have taken money from farm programs to restore the food stamp funding.
The Senate farm bill, which passed earlier this month, does not include food stamp cuts as deep as the House legislation. A final version will have to be worked out between House and Senate negotiators, if the House vote wins passage.
On farm programs, Lucas persuaded a colleague to withdraw an amendment that would have reduced the target prices for certain crops. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said the prices were set so high, they could encourage farmers to plant crops based on the subsidies, rather than for the market.
Lucas promised Gibbs to continue to work on the issue, and Gibbs withdrew his amendment.