WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican leaders hoping to recover from an embarrassing defeat on the House floor last month are preparing to split a massive farm bill in two and vote on it Thursday.
The GOP House leadership released a smaller version of the five-year bill late Wednesday, dropping a politically sensitive section of the legislation that would have made small cuts to the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program. Republicans are divided on how big cuts should be to food stamps, which have doubled in cost in the last five years. Democrats have opposed any cuts.
The White House swiftly issued a veto threat of the legislation, saying food stamps should not be left out of the bill. The White House had also threatened to veto the original bill, saying it did not include enough reductions to farm subsidies and that the food stamp cuts were too high.
Republicans have been counting votes for the bill containing only the farm programs over the last two days, with a food stamp bill to come at a later date. Farm groups, anti-hunger groups and conservative groups have all opposed the idea, for different reasons.
The split bill is an attempt to gather support from conservatives who voted against the $100 billion-a-year farm bill. The House rejected the farm bill in June by a vote of 234-195, with 62 Republicans voting against it, many of them saying the bill's 3 percent cut in food stamps was not enough.
The idea is that the farm portion of the bill, which contains about $2 billion a year in cuts to farm subsidies, could pass without the food stamp provisions. By splitting the two, Republicans might be able to make bigger cuts in food stamp programs and pass that bill with conservative support.
House Democrats reacted angrily to the last-minute move. Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, called it a "bill to nowhere" since the Democratic Senate is likely to add the food stamp money back in. The Democratic-led Senate, which overwhelmingly passed a farm bill with smaller cuts to food stamps, would be reluctant to go along with a split bill or further cuts to the programs.
"This dead-on-arrival messaging bill only seeks to accomplish one objective," Hoyer said. "To make it appear that Republicans are moving forward with important legislation even while they continue to struggle at governing."
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said he sees "no clear path to getting a bill passed by the House and Senate and signed by the president."
House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said as recently as last week that he opposed splitting the bill. But he has now reluctantly agreed to the strategy, saying he would support it if his Republican leaders could deliver the votes. Late Wednesday, he gave a reserved endorsement of the plan to the GOP-controlled Rules Committee, which determines the procedures for floor debate.
"Maybe the old dynamic of how we have done things since 1965 isn't valid anymore," he said. "Maybe it is time to try something different."
Lucas said as he left the meeting that he didn't know if the leadership had the 218 votes necessary for passage.
The bill would also repeal laws from the 1930s and 1940s that kick in when current farm law expires. Farm-state lawmakers have kept those laws on the books so there would be incentive to pass new farm bills and avoid expiration, but the threat of outdated policies kicking in has been a headache for farmers who worry they can't depend on Congress to create new laws or extend more recent versions of the law.
Repealing those decades-old laws could mean that Congress would have little incentive to create new farm bills, however, and could make many farm programs permanent.
Farm groups and anti-hunger groups have warned that separating the farm and nutrition programs after decades of linking them would be misguided. Rural lawmakers have long added money for food stamps to the farm bill, which sets policy for agricultural subsidies and other farm programs, to gather urban votes for the measure.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last week, more than 500 farm groups asked the GOP leadership not to split the legislation.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said splitting the bill would be a "major mistake."
Conservative groups have also campaigned against the strategy, saying it is a ruse to get the bill in conference with the Senate, where food stamps will be added back in with smaller cuts. Andy Roth of the Club for Growth sent a letter to members Wednesday saying the new bill would merely end up "leaving us back where we started."
Passing a food stamp-only bill would not be easy as Republicans have disagreed on how much should be cut. The House Agriculture Committee bill would cut about $2 billion a year from the almost $80 billion-a-year program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But some on the right would like to see much bigger cuts and to change the structure of the program.
Lucas said he hopes a food stamp bill would come to the floor quickly, so the House and Senate can begin negotiations and get a farm bill passed.
"The quicker that second bill is passed the easier it is to complete the whole process," he said.
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