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.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
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.

The farm bill is back from the dead.

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.

“Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a naked attempt to get to a conference committee with the Senate," he added. "The end result of such a conference would be a perpetuation of subsidies and government intervention that will continue to harm consumers and taxpayers alike.”  

Without robust support from fiscal hawks in the GOP, which still seems unlikely, agriculture advocates worry that pursuing a GOP-only bill risks a second failed vote on the farm bill.  

For most legislation, being brought back to the floor after losing once is a moonshot. But twice?

“You can come back from the dead once, but I don’t think you can do twice,” says Representative Peterson, who worked hand-in-glove with Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R) of Oklahoma each of the last two years to try to get a bipartisan farm bill, including food stamps, to the floor. “We can’t bring this bill up again unless it will actually pass.”

In a letter to Speaker Boehner last week, more than 500 agricultural groups agreed with Peterson.

Whether because it doesn’t have votes in the House or because a farm-policy only strategy risks a deadlock with the Senate, the end result would be the same: no farm bill.

“We believe that splitting the nutrition title from the rest of the bill could result in neither farm nor nutrition programs passing, and urge you to move a unified farm bill forward,” the groups said, in the July 2 letter.

In the long run, too, some believe that splitting the farm and food programs will set the stage for more gridlock on farm issues.

Because every senator represents not only agricultural interests but the poor in need of food aid, the bond between the two programs will almost certainly remain strong in the upper chamber, says Dan Glickman, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Agriculture secretary under President Clinton. He also previously served six-terms in the US House.

But in the House, where Mr. Glickman estimates only 60-some districts are predominantly agricultural, splitting the bill opens it up to criticism from all parts of the political spectrum in a way that could make it almost impossible to pass in the future.  

‘It’s a very bad idea because I think split farm and food stamp [bills] ultimately jeopardizes both,” says Glickman. The farm program, particularly, represents “too narrow of a demographic to sustain itself in the House.”

Peterson suggests another way forward: Change or kill off some previous amendments, including one championed by House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia that allowed states to require food-stamp recipients to work, and put last month's farm bill right back on the floor.

Peterson says perhaps a dozen Democrats previously offended by the amendments could be brought back into the fold. A host of wayward GOPers, including committee chairman usually loyal to Boehner (who himself took the unusual step of voting for the bill), could be brought back to the table and, voila, comprehensive farm bill en route to a conference committee.

Republicans could be looking at tweaking the bill, to get to the 218 votes needed to pass the measure, says Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa.

Instead, he said, the House is attempting to hit a legislative bank shot after their first, much simpler effort, came up short. 

“Right now,” says Representative King, “there’s a fixation on splitting the bill.”

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