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."
Whatever the ultimate goal, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and other leaders have been scrambling since the defeat of the original bill last month to find a formula that might attract enough House votes to pass. That formula, it turned out, was to send a bill to the floor that dealt only with agriculture and made certain changes within some programs.
Some conservatives have been pushing hard for such a reconsideration of the very make-up and contents of a farm bill. They complain it is deceptively named because now about 80 percent -- or $750 billion -- of its funding authorizations are now related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, not agriculture programs.
"This is the first farm-only farm bill in 40 years," boasted Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who has for a year been pushing for splitting the bill, on the floor. "Today, we can pass a bill that sends a clear message: The days of deceptively named, budget-busting bills are over."
Other changes were made to the House GOP's defeated original bill to attract more Republican votes, including a repeal of a law that has required Congress to reauthorize farm funding every five years or the legal language governing farm programs would automatically revert to what was in place in 1949.
But some of those changes found in the new version were blasted Thursday by conservative and other groups, as anything but meaningful reforms.
For instance, Heritage Action sent out a statement objecting to the bill's being sold to lawmakers in part with its repeal of the 1949 law. But Heritage said it would create a new law that would prevent lawmakers in an even broader way from reconsidering, in the form of regular reauthorization, some farm policies.
"Instead, market-distorting programs would continue indefinitely, like the government-imposed tariffs on sugar imports and quotas on domestic sugar production, which cause Americans to pay two to four times higher prices for sugar than consumers in other countries," said Heritage.
A statement from Environmental Working Group, similarly panned the bill, explaining, "At a time of record farm income and record federal deficits, the House bill increases unlimited crop insurance subsidies by more than $9 billion and creates special insurance subsidies for both cotton and peanut farmers." It said the bill would make these expanded subsidies permanent, even as it allows conservation and other critical programs to expire in 2018.
It is unclear whether the Senate will be willing to go to conference because the Republican bill doesn't even contain nutrition programs.
On Tuesday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., issued a statement noting that more than 500 farm and conservation groups had opposed splitting the bill. "If the House is serious about supporting rural America, they need to pass a comprehensive farm bill like the Senate bill that passed with broad bipartisan support," she said.
For its part, the White House was projecting little doubt that Obama would not sign such a bill if it were presented to him.
A statement released Wednesday night said the bill does not contain sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms and does not invest in renewable energy, an important source of jobs and economic growth in rural communities across the country. The statement added, "This bill also fails to reauthorize nutrition programs, which benefit millions of Americans -- in rural, suburban and urban areas alike. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a cornerstone of our nation's food assistance safety net, and should not be left behind as the rest of the Farm Bill advances."