By Erik Wasson
A Democratic attempt to stop $16.5 billion in cuts to food stamps in the 2012 farm bill was defeated in the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday.
The vote on the amendment to preserve funding was 15-31, and followed an emotional debate.
Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) offered the measure. He was supported by liberal members of the panel who said the farm bill was balancing the federal budget on the backs of the poor.
These members accused supporters of the compromise farm bill as being "un-American" and heartless.
"They literally take food away from hungry people," McGovern said.
Supporters of the farm bill cuts argued that the savings come from common-sense reforms and that those who actually qualify for food stamps based on income and assets would remain on the program.
The farm bill gets most of its savings, some $11 billion, by curtailing so-called “categorical eligibility” for food stamps. It aims to restrict the ability of states to allow people to qualify for food stamps by virtue of receiving non-cash anti-poverty benefits, including information booklets.
Another $4 billion comes from restricting the ability of states to sign people up for food stamps by giving them home heating assistance. That provision is included in the Senate-passed farm bill.
Critics say that states are abusing the “loophole” by giving people who do not have utility bills nominal amounts of heating assistance.
Liberals say that up to 3 million people will lose benefits due to the cuts and point to statistics that suggest very few food-stamp users exceed income thresholds.
“If you want to reduce SNAP expenditures, put more people back to work,” McGovern said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps.
Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) called the farm bill “the most un-American thing we can do,” while Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said the bill reflected a “fundamental division in this Congress,” in which Republicans were refusing to raise taxes on the rich.
Republicans insisted qualified poor people would not be hurt.
“I want poor people to have food,” Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said.
“We are not cutting, we are addressing common-sense areas to reform,” added Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.).
“How can you look the American taxpayer in the eye and say we are going to look the other way with people who are gaming the system, with states that are gaming the system?” Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) said.
Schrader and Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) offered an amendment that would have retained the Senate food stamp cuts but stopped the other $12 billion in cuts. That was defeated in a 15-28 vote.
Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) noted that he represents the once-poor district depicted in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and insisted he is not heartless. He said that just as he would have preferred not to cut direct payments to farmers, which are eliminated in the bill, defenders of food stamps need to be open to reforms of the program to deal with the deficit.
Peterson has said he prefers reforms to food stamps different from those included in the bill, but he is supporting the cuts as a way to move it through committee. He told The Hill he believes the Senate will strip out the extra cuts in an eventual conference committee.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) offered a conservative amendment to double the cuts to food stamps, bringing the total to $33 billion in cuts. It was defeated in a 13 to 33 vote, with 13 Republicans joining all the Democrats in opposing the additional cuts.
Lucas and the other GOP opponents said they did not want to upset the “balanced” deal with Democrats.
“We will have squandered one real chance of getting beyond the $4 billion in cuts in the Senate bill,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) warned.
Peterson and Lucas are hoping that a strong bipartisan vote out of committee will convince House GOP leaders to bring the farm bill to the floor before current farm programs expire on Sept. 30.
Final votes on the bill were expected late Wednesday night.
This story was last updated at 6:02 p.m.