By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Republicans plan to seek a $40 billion cut in food stamps for the poor, the head of the House Agriculture Committee said on Thursday, double the amount previously sought by conservatives.
The plan was quickly condemned by Democrats.
Chairman Frank Lucas said the legislation on food stamps, formally named Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), would be the second part of any talks with the Senate on a new U.S. farm law costing $100 billion a year.
Food stamps, the largest U.S. anti-hunger program, are the pivotal issue for the farm bill. One in seven Americans received food stamps at latest count.
Republicans say the program, whose enrollment soared after the 2008-09 recession, is unbearably expensive at $78 billion a year. Democrats such as Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts say food stamps mitigate hunger in a still-weak economy.
Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, told lobbyists in a speech that a Republican working group agreed on cuts expected to total $40 billion. The provisions would include drug tests of applicants and tougher work rules, Lucas indicated.
The House would vote on food stamps before opening negotiations with the Senate, probably in September, on a final version of the farm bill. Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, said time was running short to enact a bill before the current law expires on September 30.
"It makes no sense to see continued political gamesmanship," said Stabenow. She said the $40 billion package would appease Tea Party Republicans but never become law. "I believe it's an effort to stop a farm bill from being passed."
Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee, said the deeper cuts and "poison pill nutrition amendments" sought by Republicans "effectively kills any hopes" for a long-term farm bill.
On June 20, the House defeated a farm bill that included $20 billion in food stamp cuts over 10 years, the deepest cuts in a generation, primarily because it was not enough to satisfy conservatives. Some 62 Republicans voted against the bill.
"We'll see if they change their minds," said Lucas when asked if $40 billion could win enough support to pass. All but two dozen Democrats voted against $20 billion in cuts.
The House passed a farm bill on a party-line vote on July 11 that was limited to agricultural support programs and left out food stamps altogether. The two elements are typically twinned, as they were in the Senate version that was passed in June.
Lucas said staff-level work toward reconciling the two chambers' bills would continue during the August recess - "pre-conferencing" before formal negotiations commence.
"I think we'll make great progress," he said.
The Senate bill called for $4 billion in cuts to the food stamp program. Because of the huge difference between the two versions, "this may be one of those issues that ultimately needs a little guidance from on high," Lucas said, referring to Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader.
One of the food stamp reforms sought by Republicans would require recipients to work or enroll in a job-training class. Sponsor Steve Southerland of Florida said "we have done a disservice" if people do not move into the workforce.
Southerland's amendment would disqualify people who cannot find work during times of high unemployment and does not provide money for training programs, said the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think-tank.
The center said many food stamp families hold jobs and that able-bodied adults without young children are limited to three months of benefits in 36 months if they do not have a job.
Food stamp costs will fall in November with expiration of a temporary, 13 percent increase that was part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Outlays would drop by $5 billion in fiscal 2014. For a family of four, benefits would drop by $36 a month.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott, Editing by Ros Krasny and Ken Wills)