WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted Tuesday to keep a $400 million annual cut — or roughly a half of 1 percent — to the food stamp program as part of a major five-year farm bill.
Food stamps now cost almost $80 billion annually and are used by 1 in 7 Americans. The House and Senate have differed sharply on how much the domestic food aid should be cut, with the House version of the farm bill proposing to cut five times more than the Senate bill and change eligibility rules for recipients.
The Senate Agriculture Committee included the small cut in its version of the farm bill in an effort to appease the House Republicans and also to end what its chairwoman, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said was a misuse of the program. The Senate bill would target states that give people who don't have heating bills very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits.
With Stabenow objecting to both amendments, the chamber rejected, 58-40, a Republican effort to expand the cuts and also rejected, 70-26, a Democratic effort to eliminate them. The amendment by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would have expanded the cuts to $3.5 billion a year; the amendment by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would have eliminated the cuts.
Resolving the differences on food aid, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, between the two chambers will be key to passage of the massive five-year farm bill that lawmakers are attempting to push through for the third year in a row. The far-reaching bill costs almost $100 billion annually and would set policy for farm subsidies, rural programs and the food aid.
The House version of the farm bill would cut $2 billion a year, or a little more than 3 percent, from the food aid program, which has more than doubled in cost since 2008.
Last year more than 47 million people used SNAP. The rolls rose rapidly because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under the 2009 economic stimulus law.
Republicans criticized President Barack Obama in last year's presidential campaign for the expansion of the program, and many House conservatives have refused to consider a farm bill without cuts to food stamps.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday he was "deeply concerned" about the House food stamp cuts, which he said would "deny struggling families and their children access to food assistance."
The House legislation would make cuts similar to the Senate bill and also eliminate what is called categorical eligibility, or giving people automatic food stamp benefits when they sign up for certain other programs. The Roberts amendment would have made similar changes.
The Senate is expected to consider several more amendments to the farm bill this week, including cuts to government-subsidized crop insurance.
The Senate passed a similar farm bill last year, but the House did not consider it. The House Agriculture Committee approved its version of the farm bill last week and the full House is expected to vote on the bill this summer.
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