WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican House leaders are working to line up votes for nearly $4 billion in annual food stamp cuts, but some GOP moderates are questioning if that is too much.
The savings would be achieved by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs. The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.
The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults who don't have dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
Conservatives have said the almost $80 billion-a-year program has become bloated. More than 47 million Americans, or 1 in 7, are now on food stamps, and the program's cost has more than doubled in the last five years as the economy has struggled.
But finding a compromise — and the votes — to scale back the feeding program has been difficult. Conservatives have insisted on larger cuts, while Democrats have been united in opposition and moderate Republicans from areas with high food stamp usage have been wary of efforts to slim the program.
"I think the cuts are too drastic and too draconian," says Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, who represents Staten Island, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy last year. "Those that really need the program will suffer."
Grimm says he plans to vote against the bill. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, also plans a "no" vote, according to his spokesman, Michael Anderson. He said Young is concerned about the impact the cuts could have on people in his state's poorest, most rural areas.
With some Republicans wavering, Thursday's vote could be close. The GOP leaders have been reaching out to moderates to ensure their support while anti-hunger groups have similarly worked to garner opposition.
The food stamp legislation is the House's effort to finish work on a wide-ranging farm bill, which has historically included both farm programs and food stamps. The House Agriculture Committee approved a combined bill earlier this year, but it was defeated on the floor in June after conservatives revolted, saying the cuts to food stamps weren't high enough. That bill included around $2 billion in cuts annually.
After the farm bill defeat, Republican leaders split the legislation in two and passed a bill in July that included only farm programs. They promised the food stamp bill to come later, with deeper cuts.
Republicans have emphasized that the bill targets able-bodied adults who don't have dependents and would allow states to implement work requirements that are similar to the 1996 welfare law that led to a decline in people receiving that government assistance.
"Politically it's a great issue," says Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, one of the conservatives who has pushed for the larger cuts. "I think most Americans don't think you should be getting something for free, especially for the able-bodied adults."
Huelskamp said he would support the bill, even though he had offered an amendment to the June farm bill that would have gone even further. His amendment, which was defeated, would have forced states to put work requirements in place, rather than make that an option for the states, as the new bill would.
Supporters and opponents of the food stamp bill are focusing on some of the 57 Republicans who voted against that Huelskamp amendment as they lobby for their positions.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday that Democrats are united against the bill.
"Maybe I'm just hoping for divine intervention, but I really do believe that there are enough Republicans that will not identify themselves with such a brutal cut in feeding the American people," Pelosi said at a news conference.
Even if the bill does pass, it is not expected to become law. The Democratic Senate has opposed any major cuts, and that chamber passed a farm bill in June that had around a tenth of the cuts in the House bill, or around $400 million a year. President Barack Obama has also opposed cuts that go beyond the Senate bill.
In a statement Wednesday, the White House issued a veto threat.
"These cuts would affect a broad array of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, including working families with children, senior citizens, veterans and adults who are still looking for work," the White House said. "Slashing SNAP also weakens our nation's farm and rural economies." SNAP is an acronym for Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for the food stamp program.
The Congressional Budget Office says that if the bill were enacted, as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014.
Around 1.7 million of those would be the able-bodied adults who would be subject to work requirements after three months of receiving food stamps. The 1996 welfare law put that limit into law, but most every state has been allowed to waive that requirement since the Great Recession began in 2008.
The other 2.1 million would lose benefits because the bill would largely eliminate so-called categorical eligibility, a method used by many states that allows people to automatically qualify for food stamps if they already receive other benefits. Some of those people who qualify that way do not meet current SNAP income and asset tests.
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