Republicans have quietly maneuvered to prevent a House spending bill from chipping away at federal farm subsidies, instead forging ahead with much larger cuts to domestic and international food aid.
The GOP move will probably prevent up to $167 million in cuts in direct payments to farmers, including some of the nation's wealthiest. The maneuver, along with the Senate's refusal Tuesday to end a $5 billion annual tax subsidy for ethanol-gasoline blends, illustrates just how difficult it will be for Congress to come up with even a fraction of the trillions in budget savings over the next decade that Republicans have promised.
Meanwhile, the annual bill to pay for food and farm programs next year would cut food aid for low-income mothers and children by $685 million, about 10 percent below this year's budget.
The farm subsidy cuts won bipartisan approval in the House Appropriations Committee two weeks ago, but as debate on the House floor began Tuesday, Republicans turned to a procedural maneuver to drop that language.
Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, won an agreement from party leaders to strike the cuts in direct payments if just one member objected on the floor. Some Democrats hope to force a vote but aren't sure they will be able to.
"The takeaway from this is that nothing has changed with regard to farm subsidies, it's the same old, same old," said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a Democrat who has pushed to restore the money cut from food aid.
Direct payments to farmers have been a frequent target of fiscal conservatives and other critics of farm programs because they are paid regardless of crop price or yield. They have survived for years, along with tens of billions annually in other subsidies for farmers, because a powerful coalition of farm state lawmakers in both parties has protected them.
While there has been consensus even among some farm-state members that direct payments should be cut in the coming year to help reduce the deficit, Republican leaders have been content so far to push off that debate and let farm-state members on the House Agriculture Committee hash it out as part of the next five-year farm bill in 2012..
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., wrote the subsidy cut language. Farmers can now make as much as $750,000 annually and still receive subsidies, but Flake's amendment would lower the threshold for some to $250,000, saving about $20 million annually. Another Flake amendment would have dipped into direct payments to pay a $147 million annual payment the United States makes to Brazil as a settlement in a World Trade Organization dispute over cotton subsidies.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., won an amendment in the Appropriations Committee version that would shift the Brazil money to the Women, Infants and Children program. It, too, can be axed through a parliamentary challenge approved by the GOP leadership-controlled Rules Committee.
DeLauro, McGovern and other Democrats argued on the House floor Tuesday that the cuts to in food aid programs are reckless and should be restored. Republicans responded that the Women, Infants and Children program is flush with reserves and said the cuts will not decrease participation in the program.
The bill also would cut the Food and Drug Administration's $2.5 billion budget by almost 12 percent, straining the agency's ability to implement a new food safety law signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year.