House approves nutrition title of farm bill

Nutrition title passage brings farm bill one step closer to completion with conferees expected to be named soon.

Led by deep reforms sought by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), House Republicans approved the nutrition title of the farm bill in a tight contest of 217-210, with 15 Republicans defecting and 5 Democrats and 1 Republican not voting. Conferees must be named to move the House and Senate into conference to settle the vast differences between the two chambers.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the bill would reduce nutrition spending by $39 billion over the next decade. House Democrats charged it would increase hunger by ending benefits for nearly 4 million people in 2014.

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 the amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland (R., Fla.) which allows states to apply federal work requirements to the food stamp program. Another amendment from Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.) establishes a lifetime ban for convicted felons. Another controversial amendment from Rep. Richard Hudson (R., N.C.) institutes mandatory drug testing for all SNAP participation.

Another controversial piece of the House's bill allows states that adopt Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work requirements in SNAP to receive the 50% match to be used by states however they see fit, which was coined as incentive to cash-strapped states to kick individuals off the program.

Ahead of the final vote, House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) 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. [Thursday's] vote was another step toward that goal," said Lucas.

The nutrition title passage has been long touted by the 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 chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) called the bill a "monumental waste of time" as it has no chance of passing the Senate and 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 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, House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said he expected the Senate will probably have to reappoint conferees, and the House too will appoint theirs.

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.

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