MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The House's broad rejection of a massive farm bill could signal a shift in the way Congress views agriculture policy.
Farm issues once had enormous clout on Capitol Hill, but the healthy agriculture economy and an increased interest in cutting spending have worked against farm-state lawmakers who are now trying to push a farm bill through for a third year in a row.
The five-year, half-trillion dollar measure would have expanded some subsidies while saving about $4 billion annually overall, including a 3 percent cut in the almost $80 billion-a-year food stamp program. The vote Thursday was 234-195 against the bill, with 62 Republicans voting "no," arguing it was too expensive.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said after the vote that the committee is assessing its options.
But just before the vote, he signaled that he was not optimistic he would be able to get another bill to the floor.
"I can't guarantee you'll see in this Congress another attempt," he said.
Lucas and other rural lawmakers argue that a farm bill is needed to avert crises stemming from bad weather or price collapses. They could push for an extension of the 2008 farm bill, which expires in September, or negotiate a new bill with the Senate and try again. Some conservatives have suggested separating the farm programs from the food stamps into separate bills.
Lawmakers on the agriculture committees have for decades added food stamps to farm bills to garner urban votes. But that marriage has made passage harder this year.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed its version of the farm bill last week, with about $2.4 billion a year in overall cuts and a $400 million annual decrease in food stamps - one-fifth of the House bill's food stamp cuts. The White House was supportive of the Senate version but had issued a veto threat of the House bill.
In addition to conservative opposition, the bill also suffered from lack of Democratic support necessary for traditional bipartisan passage. Only 24 Democrats voted in favor of the legislation after many said the food stamp cuts could remove as many as 2 million needy recipients from the rolls. The addition of the optional state work requirements by Republican amendment just before final passage turned away many remaining Democratic votes.
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said he believes the work requirements and a vote that scuttled a proposed dairy overhaul turned too many lawmakers against the measure.
"I had a bunch of people come up to me and say 'I was with you but this is it, I'm done,'" Peterson said after the vote.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, voted for the bill but lobbied for the dairy amendment that caused some dairy-state lawmakers to eventually turn on the legislation. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., vocally supported the amendment that imposed the work requirements, coming to the House floor to endorse it just before the vote on that amendment and the final vote on the bill.
The defeat is also a major victory for conservative taxpayer and environmental groups that have unsuccessfully worked against the bill for years. Those groups have aggressively lobbied lawmakers in recent weeks, hoping to capitalize on the more than 200 new members of the House since the last farm bill passed five years ago. Many of those new members are conservative Republicans who replaced moderate rural Democrats who had championed farm policy.