Partisan accusations of broken promises erupted Thursday as 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.
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The Republican-led House's "Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act" would have cost $940 billion over a decade.
The Democratic-controlled Senate already has passed its own $955 billion version, which does not cut as much from the food stamp program.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, supported passage of the House bill, and he voted for it on Thursday. Its differences with the Senate's version were expected to be worked out in a two-chamber conference. But instead, there looms uncertainty in whether the House can even pass a bill regarding the nation's long-term agriculture policy.
On a broader scale, the bill's defeat Thursday will inevitably be dissected as yet another set-back or misstep by Boehner 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 Democrats who supported the bill.
A McCarthy aide, Erica Elliott, even e-mailed to reporters an Associated Press story dating from Wednesday in which Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, had predicted "at least" 40 Democrats would support the bill.
In a statement, Cantor more directly blamed Democrats for Thursday's vote outcome.
"I'm extremely disappointed that Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership have at the last minute chosen to derail years of bipartisan work on the Farm Bill and related reforms," said Cantor.
But Collins, speaking to reporters after the bill's defeat, suggested that the fault lies more 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.
However, Cantor said that while "far from perfect," the inclusion of language like the food-stamp amendment authored by Southerland was one of the ways to achieve "meaningful reform."
But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also bristled at a suggestion by Cantor that Democrats had "turned a bipartisan bill into a partisan one." Hoyer noted that 62 Republicans voted against the bill. "We take no blame for the farm bill," he said. "None. Zero."
Also following the vote, Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, sent out his own e-mail, titled "refreshing your memory," listing other miscues by Boehner and his leadership team in terms of bills defeated on the House floor, or votes suddenly called off because of a lack of support.