House passes farm bill without food stamps
House Republicans narrowly passed a farm bill yesterday that was stripped of hundreds of billions in funding for food stamps, abandoning four decades of precedent to gain the backing of conservative lawmakers.
The 216-208 vote was a victory for a Republican caucus that has struggled to pass the most basic of legislation, but it also set up weeks of acrimony and uncertainty as House and Senate leaders must reconcile two vastly different visions for providing subsidies to farmers and feeding the hungry.
The farm bill, which passed after hours of delay from irate Democrats, was the second act in a particularly hostile day on Capitol Hill – even by modern standards.
In the morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he planned to change long-standing Senate rules to push through presidential appointees that have been blocked by Republicans – a move so severe that it is known as the “nuclear option.” That led to a bitter, nearly two-hour exchange between the Nevada Democrat and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who at one point called Reid the “worst leader ever.”
Against that backdrop, the two chambers must hash out a farm bill by the end of September or policy will revert to a 1949 law that could lead to steep price increases on everyday items such as milk.
House leaders and their aides conceded yesterday that they were so consumed by simply passing the pared-down bill that they haven’t figured out what to do next.
Asked before the passage of the House bill how he would approach negotiations with the Senate, Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said: “If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas. My goal right now is to get the farm bill passed. We’ll get to those issues later.”
The 608-page measure that passed the House includes a package of subsidies for farmers worth about $195 billion over the next 10 years that would make significant changes to agricultural policy and conservation programs, including an end to direct subsidies to farmers. It is nearly identical to that aspect of the Senate bill.
But for the first time since 1973, the House measure says nothing about funding for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was set at about $740 billion.
Farm subsidies and food stamps have long been paired, in part for political reasons. Rural lawmakers backing payments to farmers and urban ones supporting money for food and nutrition programs formed a powerful coalition that served both interests.
House Republicans tried that formula two weeks ago, but the bill was killed after a surprise revolt from conservatives over the cost of the food stamp program. That led to splitting the bill in two, though House leaders have not detailed what they would like to do with the food stamp program, other than to cut it. By how much, when and in what way remain unclear.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, said he would introduce a separate food stamp bill “as soon as I can achieve a consensus.”
If Congress fails to reach agreement on food stamps, funding will be worked out as part of the normal appropriations process and will probably remain at current levels.