How Did the Farm Bill Just Fail So Spectacularly?

In a surprise, the $940 billion bill was defeated by dissident Republicans and by Democrats who objected to food-stamp work requirements.
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Partisan accusations of broken promises erupted Thursday as a version of a House five-year farm bill was defeated in stunning fashion, 195-234, with 62 Republicans joining a majority of Democrats against the bill.

Blame was being cast mostly on the bill's huge cut to the food stamp program, exacerbated by a late Republican amendment that some Democrats -- who may otherwise still have voted for the wider bill -- felt was too punitive in forcing work requirements for food-stamp recipients.

"This turned out to be an even heavier lift than I thought," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., of the events that now send the House back to the drawing board to try to come up with a measure that sets agriculture programs and policy for five years.

The bill would have cost $940 billion over a decade.

The Senate already has passed its version.

On a broader scale, the bill's defeat Thursday will inevitably be dissected as yet another set-back or misstep by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his leadership team -- Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. -- in terms of their strategic instincts or even simply vote counting.

The defeat will also resurrect questions about Boehner's perceived lack of control over his own unruly Republican conference.

In fact, Republican aides had expressed confidence in recent days it would pass, even as they knew many Republicans did not believe it cut enough from the food-stamp program.

Outside pressure from some conservative groups, including the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, kept the heat on for Republicans to reject what they called a wasteful, nearly $1 trillion bill, even though the House bill would have cut projected spending in farm and nutrition programs by more than $40 billion over the next 10 years. About $20.5 billion would have come from cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

The Obama Administration had given that as one reason why the president would not support the House bill.

Still, senior House Republican aides were blaming the defeat Thursday more on what they say was a failure -- or even a double-cross -- by House Democrats on promises to deliver at least 40 more votes than the 24 that Democrats did deliver.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, was among those who suggested that the fault lies in the GOP leadership's decision to allow passage of the late amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., which would give states an option to require people receiving food stamps to find work.

That cost dozens of Democratic votes for the wider bill, Peterson said. Even before that amendment was passed, most Democrats opposed that bill on the grounds it cut $20.5 billion from the food-stamp program.

"When I was chairman, I had to come up with the votes," Peterson added, deflecting claims that Democrats were at fault for the outcome.

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Billy House

Bill House is a staff writer (Congress) for National Journal.

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