Dems may use food-stamp money to pay for Michelle Obama’s nutrition initiative

Democrats who reluctantly slashed a food-stamp program to
fund a state-aid bill may have to do so again to pay for a top priority of first
lady Michelle Obama.

The House will soon consider an $8 billion child-nutrition bill
that’s at the center of the first lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative. Before
leaving for the summer recess, the Senate passed a smaller version of the legislation
that is paid for by trimming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,
commonly known as the food-stamp program.

{mosads}The proposed cuts would come on top of a 13.6 percent food-stamp reduction in the $26 billion Medicaid and education state-funding bill
that President Obama signed this week.

Food stamps have made multiple appearances on the fiscal
chopping block because Democrats have few other places to turn to offset the
cost of legislation.

Party leaders raided the budget to find off-setting tax
increases and spending cuts to pay for their top legislative priorities, including
the roughly $900 billion healthcare law. Congressional pay-as-you-go rules
require lawmakers to offset all non-emergency spending.

Democrats have turned to the food-stamp program because funding
increases enacted in the stimulus package last year were already scheduled to
phase out over time. The changes proposed in the state-aid and nutrition bills
would simply cut off that increase early, in March 2014. Because the cuts would
not take effect for more than three years, Democratic leaders have voiced the
hope that they will be able to stop the cuts in future legislation.

But House liberals are balking now, saying that while they
swallowed the food-stamp cuts to pay for urgent funding for Medicaid and
teachers, they will not vote for more cuts in the child-nutrition bill. In a
letter sent this week to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 106 House Democrats
urged the Speaker to take the House version of the child-nutrition bill, which
does not slash food stamps, rather than the Senate version.

“This is one of the more egregious cases of robbing Peter to
pay Paul, and is a vote we do not take lightly,” the lawmakers, led by Reps.
James McGovern (D-Mass.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said of their vote on the
state-aid bill.

The House version of the child-nutrition bill, authored by Rep.
George Miller (D-Calif.), passed the Education and Labor Committee earlier this
year, but lawmakers must find a way to pay for it before it comes to the floor
for a vote. “Chairman Miller is working to find other ways to pay for this
bill,” a spokeswoman said when asked if cuts to the food stamp program would be

A House leadership aide noted that the food-stamp decrease
approved in the state-aid bill will not take effect right away and will leave
the program at the same funding level it was at before the stimulus law was
signed. “That doesn’t mean many Democrats are not concerned about the issue,
but this is a process which gives us time to deal with immediate issues (like
jobs) and helping the economy grow, while giving you time to deal with the food-stamp issue,” the aide said.

The nutrition bill is clearly a priority for Michelle Obama,
who has made a push for healthy eating — one of her signature policy issues at
White House. When the House version of the nutrition bill won committee
approval in July, it marked the first time she weighed in publicly on pending

The Obama administration has not directly addressed the
debate over the food-stamp cuts, but it is backing the Senate bill. “We
strongly supported the Senate action and look forward to working with the House
to get a final bill onto the president’s desk,” an administration official
told The Hill.

The $4.5 billion Senate bill would expand eligibility for
school meal programs, establish nutrition standards for all food sold in
schools and provide a 6-cent increase for each school lunch to help
cafeterias serve healthier meals. The $8 billion House version includes more
money for expanding access to school lunches for children in low-income

The deeper food-stamp reductions in the Senate version would
set an earlier date — in November 2013 — for eliminating the increased benefits
passed last year. A family of four would see their benefits reduced
by $59 a month, or about 9 percent. The bill would also cut funding for
nutrition-education programs aimed at low-income neighborhoods and households.

“It’s very sad. I think it’s just illustrating what dire
straits our federal government budget is in,” said Sheila Zedlewski, director
of the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center. “It’s unprecedented to
raid one safety net program to feed another.”

—This story was updated at 1:40 p.m.

Tags Michelle Obama

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