By Erik Wasson and Mike Lillis - 07/08/12 09:00 PM EDT
Liberal Democrats are fuming over $16 billion in cuts to food stamp programs included in the House farm bill set for a markup on Wednesday.
Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, agreed to the cuts as a pragmatic way of moving forward with legislation important to rural lawmakers.
Yet the move has led to anger on the left, while raising questions over whether the farm bill can pass the House given opposition among Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) issued a scathing statement after the bill’s release that called it immoral and inhumane.
“This bill increases subsidies to millionaires. This is a bill that robs the poor to pay the rich,” she told the Hill Friday. “This bill is an outrage.”
DeLauro said she is urging Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders to oppose the bill.
“No farmer is being cut back. They are being made whole,” she said. “The people are getting screwed in this process are the people who can least afford it.”
A group of liberal congressmen plan a Tuesday press conference to protest the farm bill. Agriculture Committee members Reps. Jim McGovern (Mass.) and Joe Baca (Calif.) are slated to attend along with DeLauro, Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), and Gwen Moore (Wis.).
The Democratic division could hurt the bill’s chances on the floor, Peterson told The Hill Friday, since many conservative Republicans are likely to oppose it over the price tag.
Peterson said he has consulted Pelosi and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and does not yet know how they will vote on the bill.
Meanwhile, their offices declined to say.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said she was “troubled” by the food stamp cuts.
“However,” he added, “it is important for the process to move forward, and we are confident that the deficiencies in the House bill will be corrected in the conference with the Senate.”
Hoyer meanwhile is still reviewing the bill and “has strong concerns” on food stamps, his office said.
Peterson – who acknowledged that he doesn't know how many Democrats will support the measure – said he had expected the liberal backlash.
“Some won’t vote for a farm bill if there is one dollar in cuts to food stamps,” he said.
Peterson said he would have made different reforms to food stamps, and had offered an alternative plan to the GOP that was rejected. He defended his decision to back the final product as both pragmatic and politically savvy.
“It is what had to be done in order to get through committee and through the House floor,” he said.
“I think they were trying to force me to get into a position where we would blow up the bill so they could blame Democrats in the election. That is not going to happen,” he said.
Peterson said he expects Senate Democrats to kill the deepest cut to food stamps, the restriction on categorical eligibility to food stamps, while leaving reforms pertaining to home heating assistance intact.
“I talked to Debbie [Stabenow]. There is no chance,” he said, referring to the Senate Agriculture chairwoman.
Rural members of both parties are desperate to pass a bill by Sept. 30 when current farm subsidies expire.
Pressure from GOP fiscal conservatives may force House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to keep the $900 billion bill from the floor.
Peterson said the move puts Cantor in a bind that can only benefit Democrats. If Cantor bows to Tea Party pressure and does not move a farm bill, GOP candidates in Midwest districts will lose votes, he said.
If Cantor moves the farm bill, Peterson added, the eventual product will boost the economy, helping the president.
DeLauro said she disagreed with Peterson’s strategy.
“If I had to bet my life on what the Senate would do, I wouldn’t be around for long,” she said.
Peterson said he proposed different food stamp cuts, such as making it slightly more difficult to qualify for the program through the low income home heating assistance program in the House farm bill.
On eligibility for welfare recipients, Peterson would have tweaked waivers for states that grant food stamps to higher income individuals, instead of the more blanket restriction in the bill.
This is not the first time that Peterson has angered the liberal wing.
During the 2008 negotiations on the Democrats' climate change bill, Peterson pushed back successfully against a number of provisions favored by Pelosi.
He killed language, for instance, empowering the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to oversee a program allowing polluting farmers to offset their emissions by planting trees, assigning oversight instead to the Agriculture Department (USDA).
A year later, in the early stages of the healthcare reform debate, the Minnesota centrist was one of almost 20 Democrats to warn that he'd oppose President Obama's top domestic priority unless it explicitly barred abortion funding. As the debate evolved, he was among the vocal opponents of a government-run public insurance option. And after months of debate, he voted against the bill.
This time, Peterson may be able to convince some liberal to embrace his plan.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a liberal member of the Agriculture panel, said he'll fight to get the food stamp cuts more in line with the Senate levels, but praised both House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Peterson for forging a compromise he characterized as this Congress's "high-water mark of bipartisan cooperation."