Farm-state lawmakers hoping for passage of a farm bill by the end of the year will have to bridge a deep divide between the House and the Senate over the role of the government in helping the nation's poor.
The House passed a bill Thursday that would make around $4 billion in cuts annually to the almost $80 billion-a-year food stamp program and allow states to put in place broad new work requirements for recipients. A Senate-passed farm bill would make around a tenth of the amount of those cuts, or $400 million a year.
"This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most," Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on the House floor just before lawmakers passed the bill. He said the legislation "will put people on the path to self-sufficiency and independence."
The White House threatened a veto, and Senate Democrats angrily criticized the level of cuts.
"The Senate will never pass such hateful, punitive legislation," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
For decades, Congress has combined farm programs with food stamps to garner urban votes for the rural measure. But food stamps have complicated the process this year as House conservatives have called forcuts. The cost of the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has more than doubled since the Great Recession deepened in 2008. More than 47 million Americans, or 1 in 7, are using the program.
The Senate passed a bill including both food stamps and farm programs in June. Later that month, the House defeated a farm bill that included both the food and farm programs after conservatives said itsfood stamp cuts — around $2 billion a year — weren't high enough.
GOP leaders then split the farm programs from the food stamps and passed a farm-only bill in July. Conservatives crafted the food stamp bill, saying higher cuts would be easier to pass in a stand-alone bill.
Getting the three bills into a House-Senate conference could be tricky under House rules. Republicans said Thursday that one more step is needed — the House will have to hold a procedural vote to allow both the farm and food stamp bills to go to conference. It is unclear if Republicans who pushed to split the two bills will oppose that effort.
Most of current farm law expires at the end of this month, but its effects won't be felt until the end of the year when some dairy supports expire. Without those supports, milk prices are expected to rise.
Other farm supports won't expire until next year, but farmers have been frustrated with the drawn-out debate that has now lasted two years, saying they need more government certainty as they manage their farm operations.
The food stamp bill passed by the House would allow states to put the work requirements in place for SNAP recipients but would not force them to. The bill would allow the states to require 20 hours of work activities per week from any able-bodied adult with a child over age 1 who has child care available, and for all parents whose children are over age 6 and attending school.
The bill would allow states to drug-test applicants and would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
The legislation also would eliminate so-called categorical eligibility, a method used by many states that allows people to qualify for food stamps automatically if they already receive other benefits.
The Senate bill would only find savings by ending a practice in some states of giving low-income people as little as $1 a year in home heating assistance, even when they don't have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits. The House has a similar provision.
Beyond food stamps, the two chambers will also have to resolve more minor differences in farm policies. The Senate farm bill and the two House bills combined cost roughly $100 billion annually over five years and expand some farm subsidies while eliminating others.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., pleaded with his colleagues on the House floor to vote for the food stamp bill to move the farm bill closer to passage.
"It should not be this hard to pass a bill to make sure that the consumers in this country and around the world have enough to eat," Lucas said.