House votes to cut food stamps by $39 billion

The House approved legislation Thursday that would cut $39 billion in funds over the next decade for food stamp programs.

Members approved H.R. 3102, the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act, in a close 217-210 vote. No Democrats voted for the bill, and 15 Republicans voted against GOP leaders.

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The bill would authorize food stamp programs for three years.

The legislation, part of which was developed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), passed in the face of fierce opposition from House Democrats, a White House veto threat and warnings that it is already dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate.

Several Democrats warned today that cutting $39 billion from the program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is a cruel step that would only hurt people in need.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that up to 3.8 million people would lose food stamp benefits next year.

The vote was expected to be close, as a few Republicans had said they were undecided on how to vote. Just a day earlier, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said he was “looking at it,” and two others said they were similarly undecided.

Rogers waited until the nearly last minute before voting for the measure.

Most of the Republican defections came from the Northeast, including most of the New York GOP delegation.

"I have a lot of families that are struggling. This is a tough economy, and I didn't think it was the right time to be going that deep," said Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) of his no vote.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) cited victims of Hurricane Sandy in his district who needed food stamps.

"I just felt the cuts were a little too steep, especially because right now, I have a lot of Sandy victims who have never been on assistance ever in their life," Grimm said. "And a lot of these hard-working families have lost everything, and for the first time, they're needing food stamps. So I didn’t want to affect those Sandy victims."

Other Republicans voting against the bill were Reps. Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Jeff Fortenberry (Neb.), Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Pete King (N.Y.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Gary Miller (Calif.), Chris Smith (N.J.), David Valadao (Calif.), Frank Wolf (Va.) and Don Young (Alaska).

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who frequently opposes leadership, waited until near the end before voting yes.

"That was a tough vote, yes," Amash said. "It's got some reforms that are important. I think these issues should be handled by the states, not by the federal government. But it's good to have a method for phasing these in while we transition over to the states."

Republicans stressed that the bill is needed to stop runaway spending in the food stamp program, which has roughly doubled under the Obama administration. They also said the bill is focused on reducing payments to able-bodied adults and focusing payments on more needy populations.

“There's no denying that SNAP provides important support for many Americans who are struggling,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). “It serves a noble purpose to help you when you hit bottom. But it's not meant to keep you at the bottom.”

Democrats criticized the measure.

“Cutting the investment is a full assault on the health and economic security of millions of families,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “I know one thing for sure: Every person who votes for this Republican measure is voting to hurt his or her own constituents.”

The legislation contains many of the reforms Republicans pushed for earlier this year as part of a larger farm bill, such as limiting automatic eligibility for food stamps. But it also includes language developed by Cantor that would eliminate the option states have of seeking a waiver from rules that require able-bodied adults to work or participate in a job training program in order to receive extended SNAP benefits.

Democratic opponents of the bill have said Republican and Democratic governors have been asking for these waivers, making them something both parties have supported. Opponents also say killing the waiver would leave people with no options for food aid in states where jobs or job training programs don't exist.

But Cantor rejected those criticisms today. “There's been a lot of demagoguery around this bill, and unfortunately a lot of misinformation,” he said on the floor.

“Because the truth is, anyone subjected to the work requirements under this bill who are … able-bodied, under 50, will not be denied benefits if only they are willing to sign up for the opportunity for work,” he said. “There is no requirement that jobs exist, there are workfare programs; there are options under the bill for community service.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he hoped passage of the bill would allow the House and Senate to convene a conference committee to finish up a unified farm bill.

Earlier this year, GOP leaders proposed a broader farm bill that included $20 billion in cuts to the food stamp program. But many Republicans demanded deeper cuts in an effort to further trim the rapidly growing program, and the GOP was forced to pass a farm bill without language on food stamps.

But even if a conference committee were assembled, the big differences between the House and Senate bills could pose problems for bicameral effort. One question is how to find agreement between the two chambers on a total level of food stamp spending — the Senate-passed farm bill only makes a $4 billion cut to SNAP.

Another question is whether to synchronize the authorization for commodity and food stamp programs. For years, both have been authorized together under a single five-year farm bill.

The House has tried to separate the two items. Over the summer, it passed a five-year bill dealing with farm commodity programs, but the food stamp bill passed today authorizes SNAP for just three years.

House Republicans pushed for the split in order to more cleanly attack the rising costs of the food stamp program.

Senate Democrats are expected to push to unify the two elements in conference, while many House Republicans are expected to keep up pressure to put the two issues on different timelines.

“Food stamps and farm policy should be considered individually and on their own merits,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) said on the floor today. Stutzman lost his post as an assistant GOP whip after bucking other leaders in his push to split the bill, even though the House now appears to be following his proposal.

“It's just common sense, and it's exactly why we are here,” he said.

— Russell Berman contributed

— This story was last updated at 7:24 p.m.