House Republican leaders flexed their muscles to push a farm bill to passage this week, but they face major challenges in turning that political victory into a policy achievement.
The bill was approved in a narrow 216-208 vote after GOP leaders bowed to conservative demands and stripped food stamp funding from the legislation. GOP leaders said they would deal with a separate food stamp bill down the road.
Such a result wouldn’t please conservatives, since extending the law won’t cut the deficit.
On top of that, any cuts to food stamps are far from a sure thing and even some Republicans argued that cuts are less likely with a split farm bill.
The united farm bill that failed on the House floor in June contained $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts, while the Senate-approved bill only cut food stamps by $4 billion.
Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) argued before the Rules Committee Wednesday night that if the farm subsidy-only bill goes to conference, the Senate could offer its food stamp title with only $4 billion in cuts, or offer no cuts at all.
The Senate leverage on food stamps is bolstered, aides say, because there are different expiration dates for food stamps and farm subsidies.
While commodity subsidies for farmers expire on Sept. 30, the food stamp program continues unchanged so long as regular appropriations are passed or Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep the government open.
Aides said there is no precedent for appropriators to change food stamp funding in the absence of a farm bill ordering them to do so.
As of Friday, House leaders had not decided their next step. A decision could come as late as the last week of July.
“Conversations need to happen between the House and the Senate and among the members,” an aide said.
Leaders appear most likely to try to pass a bill that cuts food stamps, and then try to add that to the farm bill conference with the Senate.
“The chairman, the Speaker and other members of leadership are in discussions about how to expedite an agreement on the farm bill,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Thursday.
He said it was the House’s “intention” to bring a food stamps bill to the floor “with dispatch.”
What this food stamp bill will look like is also an open question.
The House-passed 2014 budget resolution called for the $772 billion food stamp program to be cut by $135 billion over ten years. It would make the cuts by converting the program to a block grant where the federal government gives states a capped amount to states to administer.
A cut of that magnitude in binding legislation could alienate centrist Republicans, however, and is seen as unlikely.
Even Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who authored the House GOP budget that included the food stamp cuts, has so far not specified that he needs those cuts to support the bill, his office said Friday.
Still, the original farm bill failed in part because 62 House Republicans felt the $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts was not deep enough. To pass a GOP-only food stamp bill, Lucas will likely have to move his legislation to the right.
Heritage Action, which whipped up opposition to both farm bills, on Friday said it needs the GOP to show a backbone on spending cuts.
“The goal of separating the bill has always been to achieve meaningful reforms. And while the House missed the opportunity to secure those reforms to farm policy, they have the opportunity to demonstrate their conservative values on the food stamps title,” spokesman Dan Holler said.
In 2012, Ryan’s budget tasked the Agriculture Committee with contributing to a replacement to the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
The committee come up with $33 billion in food stamp cuts — an amount the GOP conference might be able to live with and which might not make a House-Senate conference unworkable, a source suggested.
A key figure in drafting the bill will be Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who chairs the Agriculture Committee sub-panel in charge of food stamps.
King wants major spending cuts to food stamps but he also wants a farm bill don. The larger the cuts to food stamps in the separated House bill, the harder it will be to conference a unified farm bill with the Senate.
On the House floor, King argued that the separated food stamp bill would not end up achieving significant cuts.
“We are down to this now: We are down to this is our choice for this bill which can provide 5 years of predictability for agriculture and an uncertain bill that might come before us on nutrition, which I think ends up without what I want, which is reform of SNAP,” he said.
Sources still see a potential final farm bill as having something in the neighborhood of $8 billion to $12 billion in food stamp cuts.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) had been prepared to accept $8 billion in cuts in the context of the failed supercommittee deficit effort of 2011.
It remains to be seen if splitting the farm bill in the end drives that number down or up.