THE House and Senate are one step closer to achieving a final farm bill with the House's approval of its nutrition title, but now, the distinct differences between the two chambers set up a difficult game plan ahead on reaching the end goal.
Led by deep reforms sought by House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), the nutrition title of the farm bill won in a tight contest of 217-210, with 15 Republicans defecting. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would reduce nutrition spending by $39 billion over the next decade.
House Democrats charged that it would increase hunger by ending benefits for nearly 4 million people in 2014. The measure also faces a veto threat from the White House.
The approved measure includes what Democrats deemed "poison pill" amendments that they said led to the defeat of the bipartisan farm bill in June and forced House leadership to split up the bill into two pieces.
These include an amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland (R., Fla.) that allows states to apply federal work requirements to the food stamp program, another from Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.) that establishes a lifetime ban for convicted felons and another controversial amendment from Rep. Richard Hudson (R., N.C.) that institutes mandatory drug testing for all participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Another controversial piece of the House bill allows states that adopt Temporary Assistance for Needy Families work requirements in SNAP to receive the 50% match to be used by states however they see fit, which was coined as an incentive to cash-strapped states to kick individuals off the program.
Ahead of the final vote, House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) again pleaded with his caucus to vote in favor of the bill to give him all the tools he needs in heading to conference.
"I remain committed to getting a five-year farm bill on the books this year. (Last Thursday's) vote was another step toward that goal," Lucas said.
The nutrition title passage has long been touted by House leadership as the next hurdle to get to conference. Agricultural groups unanimously called for the House to move quickly to conference the farm bill.
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) called the House bill a "monumental waste of time" as it has no chance of passing the Senate and since the White House also issued a veto threat.
The House Agriculture Committee's original bill, before coming to the floor, called for $20 billion in cuts over 10 years, while the Senate's called for $4 billion.
In a floor speech ahead of the vote, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) said it's possible to find some middle ground and make reasonable, responsible reforms to nutrition programs, but the bill is neither reasonable nor responsible.
"All this bill is going to do is make it harder, if not impossible, to pass a new farm bill this Congress," he said.
"The good news is now that this vote is behind us, we are close to the finish line," Stabenow said. "If House Republican leaders drop the divisive issues, appoint conferees and work with us in a bipartisan way, we can finalize a farm bill that creates jobs, reforms agriculture policy and reduces the deficit by tens of billions of dollars."
Ahead of the final vote, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) said he expected the Senate will probably have to reappoint conferees, and the House will appoint its, too.
The current farm bill, which has already been extended once by Congress, expires on Sept. 30 and, with it, authority and funding for key market development, conservation, agricultural research and price support programs.
American Soybean Assn. president Danny Murphy said the farm bill process has gone on for more than three years now, and there is still no long-term legislation in place.
"That is entirely too long," he said. "These are the real consequences of congressional inaction, and we expect the House to appoint its conferees as soon as possible. We call on both chambers to work across party lines to craft a bill that addresses the needs of both farmers and consumers."