The Republican-led House on Thursday narrowly passed a split-off version of a five-year farm bill minus its traditional authorization for food stamp and other nutrition programs, over protests from Democrats and some agriculture and conservative groups.
The 216-to-208 mostly party-line vote was tense, and the passage of the 608-page bill represented a big challenge for GOP leaders who failed last month to get a broader measure passed.
Now, however, uncertainty reigns over how negotiations on a final version may proceed with the Senate. Moreover, the White House warned late Wednesday that President Obama would veto any farm bill that does not also address food-aid policy.
"Have a heart. Where's your conscience?" asked Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., of Republicans on the House floor before the vote. "What makes this country great is we have a tradition of taking care of the least among us ... making sure the hungry have enough to eat."
Other Democrats took to the floor in the lead-up to the vote to similarly cast Republicans as sticking it to poor people. "This is wrong," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "Taking food out of the mouth of babies -- I don't think so."
But Speaker John Boehner insisted that the aim of removing food stamps from the bill for the first time since the 1970s was to "get a farm bill passed." Just last month, the House GOP leaders had suffered a chaotic, embarrassing defeat of their broader, $940 billion version that included food stamps, watching as 62 fellow Republicans joined most Democrats in opposing that legislation.
Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, told Democrats on the floor he believed Thursday's version of the bill is, in fact, an "honest" and "sincere" attempt by party leaders to get a bill done so the House could go to conference with the Democratic-led Senate, reconcile differences, and come up with a final bill. He said that the intent is not to abandon poor people.
"What we have done is excluded the things that would cause the bill to fail ... what we are trying to do is take this to conference," said Sessions. If that happens, he said, conferees for the Senate can then make their case to House conferees for food-stamp funding in a final bill.
The already Senate-passed version of a more traditional farm bill cuts nearly $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, over 10 years. The original House bill failed, even though it contained $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts over the same period.
Republicans on Thursday indicated they will vote on a stand-alone food stamp bill at a later date. But Democrats said they were skeptical, and they suggested the GOP maneuvering is ultimately about political messaging and, possibly, letting funding for food stamps sunset.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said he believes the split bill was brought to the floor only so Republicans can accomplish one objective: "to make it appear that Republicans are moving forward with important legislation even while they continue to struggle at governing."
And Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he also doubts Republican leaders, in fact, really ever intend on bringing back to the House floor any bill that the Senate and House conference might send back. Especially, he said, if the conference report resembles more the Senate bill, and ends up having significant Democratic support, but not much support from their own House Republican members.
Asked about whether he'd bring such a conference report to the floor, Boehner did not provide much rebuttal, saying only, "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, everyday would be Christmas."