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Will GOP plan to cut food stamps save the farm bill ... or kill it?

After the farm bill's stunning defeat last month, House GOP leaders are feeling out whether they can strip out a massive food stamp program and win back enough conservative votes to pass the aid to farmers.

By Staff Writer / July 9, 2013

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill on June 27, a week after the farm bill failed to pass. Tea party-backed conservatives had refused to budge in their demands for even deeper cuts to the food stamp program, which has doubled in cost over the last five years to almost $80 billion annually and now helps to feed 1 in 7 Americans.

Susan Walsh/AP/File

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WASHINGTON

The farm bill is back from the dead.

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But the way Republicans planned its resurrection, after the bill’s shocking collapse in the House two weeks ago, may yet kill it for good – and perhaps poison farm policy for the foreseeable future.

At issue is whether House Republican leaders can break the half-century-old connection between farm supports and nutrition aid for poor Americans and pass only the farm provisions, as early as later this week, solely with GOP support.

Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio suffered a stunning defeat on the farm bill last month, after 62 Republicans voted against the bill and all but 24 Democrats, opposed to some $20.5 billion in cuts to food aid over 10 years, also defected. The bill failed, 195 to 234, on June 20.

By splitting off the food stamp title of the legislation, which accounts for 80 percent of the nearly $1 trillion bill, GOP leaders hope to attract back enough conservative Republican votes to pass the measure. That would allow the House to negotiate with the Senate over a comprehensive Senate measure that drew the support of roughly two-thirds of that chamber’s members.

In some ways, the strategy appears sensible. Conservative groups and lawmakers, including Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, have long wanted to divorce the two programs, arguing that putting them together helps shield social welfare spending from appropriate fiscal scrutiny. Given that Republicans hold the majority in the House, doing things conservatives want should bring more GOP votes.

But in today's madcap Republican conference, rifts over farm policy run deep. Even without the food aid, getting enough Republican votes to pass the bill still requires striking a detente between hardline free marketeers and members from agricultural districts that benefit from subsidy policies detested by the party’s fiscal right wing.

And this time, there won’t likely be a single Democrat to help fill in the gaps.

“My guess is in a few days they’ll figure out they don’t have the votes and then we’ll get back to reality – hopefully,” says Rep. Colin Peterson (D) of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, who opposes splitting the bill and believes all of his colleagues in the minority will oppose it, as well. “Either that or they will march off and kill the farm bill.”

The difficulty with the path House Republican leaders are feeling out is best explained through several conservative groups influential in the House GOP.

While organizations like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action have long advocated splitting the farm bill from food stamps, they want serious policy changes to both agricultural and nutrition policy. Those changes aren’t in the offing in the House farm bill as of yet – and so getting like-minded lawmakers on board looks like a long shot at best.

“The purpose of ending the unholy alliance that has dominated the food stamp and farm bill for decades is to allow substantive debate that would allow the House to show its conservative values,” Michael Needham, the head of Heritage Action, an outside group with pop in the Republican conference, said in a statement.

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