By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican-run House of Representatives voted to cut spending on food stamps for the poor by $40 billion over 10 years on Thursday, defying a veto threat from the White House in the name of fiscal reform.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the driving force behind the legislation, said it was "wrong for working, middle-class people to pay" for abuse of the program, whose costs have skyrocketed in recent years.
Democrats pointed to nonpartisan estimates that the bill would end benefits to 4 million needy people in 2014.
Representatives passed the bill on a party-line vote, 217-200. Speaker John Boehner said passage would trigger long-awaited negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate over a new $500 billion farm bill, already a year overdue.
Senators voted in May for $4.5 billion in food stamp reductions, about 1/10th of the House proposal. With nutrition programs as the sticking point, analysts are skeptical that a compromise farm bill can be written that would pass in the sharply partisan Congress.
Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Democrat-controlled Senate Agriculture Committee, called the House bill "a monumental waste of time" that would never become law.
"We have never before seen this kind of partisanship injected into a farm bill," Stabenow said.
The White House on Wednesday threatened to veto the House bill to prevent damage to "one of our nation's strongest defenses against hunger and poverty."
A near-record 47.76 million people, or one of seven Americans - about 85 percent of them children, elderly or disabled - received food stamps at latest count.
House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas hailed the House bill for its "common sense reforms," while other Republicans used harsher language.
Kevin Cramer of North Dakota decried a "culture of permanent dependency" associated with food stamps, whose proper name is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Rick Crawford of Arkansas said food stamps were "fraught with abuse."
"There won't be needy people taken off of this," said Steve King, Iowa Republican. "This is a sincere effort to manage the budget."
SNAP, which helps poor people buy food, is the largest U.S. anti-hunger program. Enrollment has doubled and costs have tripled since 2004. Benefits average $1.47 per meal per person with an aggregate cost of $78 billion last year.
To fiscal conservatives, the program is a costly taxpayer burden. Tea Party-influenced Republicans demanded deep cuts in it and blocked an earlier proposal to cut $20 billion over 10 years as insufficiently small.
"This legislation is preying on people. P-R-E-Y-I-N-G!" said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, spelling the word out for emphasis.
The Cantor-backed package would limit able-bodied adults without dependents to three months of food stamps in a three-year period unless they worked part-time or were in a workfare or job-training program. It would end a provision, created by the 1996 welfare reform law, that allows states to give food stamps to people whose assets are larger than usually allowed.
Those two steps would save $39 billion over 10 years and reduce enrollment by almost 4 million people in 2014, said the Congressional Budget Office. Another reform would reduce benefits by $90 a month for 850,000 households.
Marcia Fudge, Democrat of Ohio, and other Democrats said there were not enough jobs, workfare assignments or job-training programs to match the number of people who could lose food stamps after three months.
"We all know there are three people for every available job in this country," Fudge said.
Florida Republican Steve Southerland said, "Work is a blessing" and stricter eligibility rules would move poor people into jobs.
David Beckman, president of the charity Bread for the World, said the cuts included in the House bill, roughly $5 billion a year, were equal "to doing away with all the food charity in the country."
Food-stamp defenders say continued high enrollment is a sign of the weak recovery from the 2007-09 economic recession, depressed wage growth and persisting high poverty and jobless rates.
While the Senate in May passed a comprehensive farm bill, with statutes ranging from crop subsidies and food stamps to conservation and rural development, the House, in an unprecedented move, divided its bill. Thursday's bill was devoted to nutrition, the lion's share of spending, and it earlier passed a smaller bill dealing with farm programs.
The split was a tactical victory for fiscal conservatives in the House because it is easier to cut spending when programs are isolated. Food stamps would face another review in three years and farm programs in five years under the House plan.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Ros Krasny, Gary Hill, Leslie Adler and Jim Marshall)