After heated debate this summer surrounding big cuts to nutrition programs in the farm bill, a last ditch effort to get at least a portion of the bill passed resulted in an unprecedented decision to split it into two.
While the farm-only portion narrowly passed, the time has come to revisit the hot-button topic of food stamps. And the negative feedback hasn't disappeared.
Ahead of the expected vote on Thursday, lawmakers expressed their discontent with the steep $40 billion cut from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance in the nutrition portion.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member, turned in particularly harsh words for the plan, calling it "unnecessary and divisive." He fears a continuation of the political sparring that led to a split farm bill in the first place.
"Even if this bill is defeated, as it should be, I worry the debate will eliminate any remaining goodwill needed to pass a farm bill," he noted in a statement this week. Suggesting that leadership is catering to extreme members of the party with such steep cuts, the Ranking Member added, "It’s time to get serious. If they will just get out of our way, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees can work together and provide farmers, ranchers and consumers the certainty of a five-year farm bill."
Democrats Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota agreed Wednesday. Stabenow was particularly critical of the House decision to split the farm bill into two parts.
"In the Senate, we’ve passed a budget that will replace sequestration with a balanced solution – but a handful of Senators are blocking us from being able to even send negotiators to the House to finalize the budget," Stabenow said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "And so we are now stuck with a policy that makes absolutely no sense, that economists say is slowing down our economy and costing us jobs, because of political games in Washington."
Stabenow said she would instead be supportive of policies that focused on job creation, arguing that on average, most food stamp recipients are on support for fewer than 10 months.
"For those who have lost their jobs, SNAP is a short-term lifeline to keep food on the table while they search for a job," she said. "People on SNAP want to work, but there just aren’t enough jobs for them."
The White House has also pressed for a defeat of the House's nutrition proposal, which it says would weaken farm and rural economies. Instead, an administration statement suggests, the House should reauthorize the farm bill in a "comprehensive manner."
The White House also opposed a House proposal earlier this year that suggested a lower $20 billion in cuts to food stamps – $20 billion less than the plan set for a vote Thursday.
While the nutrition provisions seemingly remain the final hurdle on the way to a farm bill conference, lawmakers have several other priorities on their minds, including the federal budget. In response to the looming deadline that is the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 – also the expiration date for current farm policy – House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Wednesday cancelled a legislative recess scheduled for next week to provide more time to settle the essential continuing resolution legislation.
While a decision on the CR isn't expected to halt talks on the nutrition provisions, it could be a speed bump on the way to conference on the farm bill.