MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press
WASHINGTON - A House plan to make major cuts to food stamps would be scaled back under a bipartisan agreement on a massive farm bill, a near end to a more than two-year fight that has threatened to hurt rural lawmakers in an election year.
The measure announced Monday by the House and Senate Agriculture committees preserves food stamp benefits for most Americans who receive them and continues generous subsidies for farmers. The House was expected to vote on the bill Wednesday, with the Senate following shortly after.
The compromise was expected to cut food stamps by about $800 million a year, or around 1 percent. The House in September passed legislation cutting 5 percent from the $80 billion-a-year program. The House bill also would have allowed states to implement broad new work requirements for food stamp recipients. That has been scaled back to a test program in 10 states.
The Democratic-led Senate had twice passed a bill with only $400 million in annual food stamp cuts, and the White House had threatened to veto the House bill. The final food stamp savings are generated by making it more difficult for states to give recipients a minimal amount of heating assistance in order to trigger higher food stamp benefits.
The farm bill released Monday would cost almost $100 billion a year over five years, with a cut of around $2.3 billion a year overall from current spending. Committee aides said they were still waiting for final numbers from the Congressional Budget Office to assess exactly how much the bill would cost.
Republican House leaders said they would support the deal. After wavering for several years, the GOP leaders were seeking to put the long-stalled bill behind them and build on the success of a bipartisan budget passed earlier this month. Leaders in both parties also were hoping to bolster rural candidates in this year's midterm elections.
Still unclear, though, was how Republicans would get the votes they needed to pass the final bill on the House floor. The full House rejected an earlier version of the farm bill in June after conservative Republicans said cuts to food stamps weren't high enough - and that bill had more than two times the cuts than those in the compromise bill announced Monday.
Some of those conservatives were certain to oppose the lower cuts to food stamps, along with many of the farm subsidies the bill offered.
While many liberal Democrats were expected to vote against the legislation, saying the food stamp cuts were too high, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have attempted a balanced bill to attract votes from the more moderate wings of both parties. They have touted the bill's overall savings and the elimination of a $4.5 billion-a-year farm subsidy called direct payments, which are now paid to farmers whether they farm or not.
The bill would continue to heavily subsidize major crops - corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton - while shifting many of those subsidies toward more politically defensible insurance programs. That means farmers would have to incur losses before they received a payout.
While those subsidies may be easier to defend, they may not cost less money. Subsidies for cotton and rice would be higher, and more money would be directed to the national crop insurance program.
The bill also would overhaul dairy policy and create a new insurance program for dairy farmers. The proposed program would do away with current price supports and allow farmers to purchase a new kind of insurance that pays out when the gap between the price they receive for milk and their feed costs narrows.
But the new dairy program would not include a so-called stabilization program that would have dictated production cuts when oversupply drives down prices. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, strongly opposed the stabilization idea, calling it "Soviet-style."
Boehner said Monday that he had hoped reforms in the bill would go further, but the legislation is "worthy of the House's support."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he would support the bill, while blaming the Senate for not accepting the House's attempted changes to the food stamp program. Still, he said, the legislation would "extend these important agriculture programs, achieve deficit reduction, and help give many Americans an opportunity to achieve independence and get back to work."
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. said the compromise "will reduce the deficit and cut waste and fraud, all while protecting hungry children and families."
Despite the congressional inertia and the short timeline, there were early signs Monday some lawmakers and groups would work to build opposition.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a longtime proponent of food stamps, said the cuts were too high. He said he would vote against the bill and would encourage his colleagues to do the same.
"They are trying to ram this thing through before anyone has a chance to read it," he said.
A coalition of powerful meat and poultry groups, generally strong supporters of the legislation, said Monday they would work against the bill after the heads of the agriculture panels did not include language to delay a labeling program that requires retailers to list the country of origin of meat. Meatpackers say it is too costly for the industry and have fought to have the program repealed in the farm bill.
In addition to the country of origin labeling, negotiators left out a number of other controversial provisions - language that would have thwarted a California law requiring all eggs sold in the state to come from hens living in larger cages, for example, and language that would have repealed a catfish program important to Mississippi.
Lucas expressed optimism that the votes would come together after years of work on the bill.
"It's nothing short of a miracle that we're at this point," he said.