WASHINGTON — House Republicans appeared Tuesday to be moving forward on stripping food stamps out of the farm bill in order to garner enough votes for crop insurance, subsidies and other agriculture-focused provisions in the legislation.
It’s an approach favored by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., although he previously indicated that he thought it was unlikely GOP leaders would pursue it. And some say that even if the House separates food stamps from the agricultural provisions in the bill, the Senate will reject that approach.
The farm bill was defeated soundly on the House floor last month over deep divisions between the two parties on food stamps. The cost of the nutrition assistance programs, commonly known as food stamps, has doubled in recent years as a result of the recession and efforts to enroll more people in the program. Conservative Republicans want deep cuts that Democrats strongly oppose.
That’s what has brought Terry and others to the unorthodox tactic of splitting the bill.
Terry welcomed the news Tuesday that the House could soon hold an up-or-down vote on the same legislation that failed last month — but without food stamps.
“I believe this is good news for Nebraska’s farmers,” Terry said.
Such a move comes over the objection of many farm groups, including many in Iowa and Nebraska.
In a recent letter to Congress, 532 farm groups urged lawmakers to keep intact the legislation and the broad bipartisan base of support the farm bill traditionally receives.
“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,” they wrote.
The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, suggested that the House might be able to pass a farm bill without food stamps but said it would only serve as a talking point to put the blame on the Senate and would not result in a bill going to the president’s desk.
“When you have 532 groups send you a letter that says, ‘Don’t do this,’ I mean, it’s pretty stupid to do it,” Peterson said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called separating the sections of the bill a “terrible idea.”
“If they succeed in doing that, that’s the end of farm bills,” he said.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., served as secretary of agriculture under President George W. Bush and has not supported peeling off food stamps in the past. Johanns said Tuesday that it’s difficult to see the coalition that could get a farm bill passed without food stamps.
“I think it’ll be a tough sell in the Senate,” he said. “This one will be a battle all the way through.”
Others have other objections. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, says proponents of splitting the sections of the bill don’t seem to realize that food stamps are permanent law and will continue to consume more resources unless they are overhauled — in the farm bill.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has written his share of farm bills. He was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee for the 1996 version and is now a senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Roberts said many farmers and ranchers have said food stamps need to be split off so they don’t get blamed for abuses in that program, but they also recognize that keeping the two sections together was the best way to get a farm bill passed. He noted that food stamps have become more of an obstacle to passing the bill in some ways, but he also noted the decline in the leverage of farm country.
“The days of the vaunted farm lobby are gone and a lot of people apparently think their food comes from grocery stores,” Roberts said.
He said a move to split off food stamps could be the last card House GOP leaders have to play.
“They’re at the end of their rope,” Roberts said. “Let’s just hope it’s not a hanging rope.”
Terry acknowledged the risk of unraveling the traditional support for the bill. But, he said, it’s the only way to get a farm bill passed.
“The reality is the farm bill was just killed on the House floor,” Terry said. “Isn’t that unraveled enough?”