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Food stamp revamp sparks GOP fight over farm bill

Food stamp revamp sparks GOP fight over farm bill
© Greg Nash

A Republican-led effort to overhaul the federal food stamps program in this year’s farm bill has sparked a bitter fight in the House, which could derail the measure’s chances for passage. 

The agricultural legislation includes language that would tighten the work requirements for millions of food stamp recipients and shift more federal funding toward job training — a key priority for retiring Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (R-Wis.).

While the provision has helped woo conservatives who would normally oppose the farm bill, the stricter eligibility requirements have repelled moderate Republicans and nearly all Democrats.

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“I have concerns regarding SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program],” said Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceThomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Gun debate to shape 2020 races GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs MORE (R-N.J.), who is facing a tough reelection bid. “Those from New Jersey who have come into my office have said they would be unable to fulfill the requirements.”


A few hard-line conservatives oppose the proposal because it doesn’t actually cut funding from SNAP, also known as food stamps, which provides food assistance to low-income individuals and families.

“It’s irrational we would spend the same amount of money [on SNAP] with 4 percent unemployment as we spent on 10 percent unemployment,” said Rep. Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonHillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns MORE (R-Ohio), a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. “In reality, there is no cut to the spending. It’s really redefining what the eligibility requirements are.”

Republican leaders, who will start formally whipping the legislation on Wednesday, have been working to build support for the plan over the past few weeks, including through listening sessions.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueFederal judge strikes down Trump's cuts on food stamps for unemployed EU's 'farm to fork' demands could mean indigestion for US food exporters Baldwin calls for Senate hearing on CDC response to meatpacking plant coronavirus outbreak MORE rallied support for the farm bill during a GOP whip team meeting on Monday, while House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayBottom line House Republican introduces amendment to include farm aid in stopgap funding bill Live coverage: Democrats, Republicans seek to win PR battle in final House impeachment hearing MORE (R-Texas) highlighted the SNAP reforms during an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) event on Tuesday.

“We’ve got to sell folks on this issue,” Conaway told reporters. “AEI is one of the most thoughtful think tanks.”

Conaway also said he is still working to sell the legislation to some of his own colleagues.

“I’m telling folks there are certain issues that we cannot let kill the entire bill,” he said.

The legislation authorizes a variety of federal food and agriculture programs, but the majority of the funding goes toward SNAP.

Under this year’s bill, all able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 59 have to be working or enrolled in a training program for at least 20 hours per week in order to qualify for food stamps. People who are elderly, disabled or pregnant would be exempt from the requirements.

The SNAP revamp is considered a legacy item for Ryan, who has sought to enact welfare reform as part of his “Better Way” agenda.

But the GOP conference is fiercely divided over the food stamp changes.

“There’s some openness to supporting it. But some people are going to be for it, some people are going to be against it,” said Rep. Morgan GriffithHoward (Morgan) Morgan GriffithMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Democratic Rep. Carbajal tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Va.), who said he is still undecided on the bill.

Some conservatives say they support trimming the social safety net, which they say will help lift people out of poverty and get welfare recipients back on their feet.

“We’re undecided at this point, but leaning in the right direction for them,” said Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerWant to prevent Democrat destruction? Save our Senate Joe Biden has long forgotten North Carolina: Today's visit is too late Mike Johnson to run for vice chairman of House GOP conference MORE (R-N.C.), head of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

But other conservatives question whether the food stamp changes go far enough. They want to see funding for the program significantly scaled back.

“I like that it’s actually doing something on SNAP. But it seems to me, if we’re going to do something, we should be really aggressive on it,” said Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments McCarthy: 'I would think I already have the votes' to remain as House GOP leader Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus leader. “I’ve got to see if this is good enough.”

The farm bill wouldn’t cut funding from SNAP, but it would shift money toward work training programs.

“I’m just wondering how many new federal workforce development programs we need,” Jordan said.

A number of conservative groups have also come out against the farm bill, including FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Heritage Action.

“The House Agriculture Committee farm bill, which is expected to be debated on the House floor in May, is unacceptable,” Heritage wrote to Congress. “It not only fails to make reforms to farm subsidies, but actually makes the subsidies even worse.”

The tougher eligibility requirements are a non-starter for Democrats, who walked away from the normally bipartisan farm bill process when Republicans decided to include the SNAP revamp. They say the proposal is unnecessarily cruel and would prevent 1 million people from receiving food stamps.

Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerTop Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate Trump orders aides to halt talks on COVID-19 relief This week: Coronavirus complicates Senate's Supreme Court fight MORE (D-Md.), the House minority whip, predicted that the food stamp changes would derail the entire farm bill’s chances for passage. And even if it passes the House, it stands little chance in the Senate.

“The farm bill is another example of the division and dysfunction in the Republican Party. ... They eschew compromise and they continue to pander to the hard-line elements of their caucus,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “It is my understanding they don’t have the votes on their side of the aisle.”

“They’re deeply divided, mainly because they have a large number of people who want to make the nutrition title of the farm bill even worse, cut more people off [from] having availability of nutritional services,” he added.

Conservatives have other fundamental issues with the bill, such as concerns with the crop insurance and commodity programs included in the measure.

But GOP leaders may give lawmakers the opportunity to vote on some amendments, which could help win over more conservative support.

“The idea that it would be a structured rule, that we would be able to offer amendments, is more likely to get support — even if some of them don’t pass,” Davidson said.

“There’s a number of people wanting amendments,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits MORE (R-N.C.). “My understanding is that [leadership] would, but I don’t know that.”

Conaway recommended that leadership allow a structured rule, but said lawmakers shouldn’t be allowed to offer amendments if they aren’t willing to support the final bill.

“If you’re a no already on the bill no matter what, then why would you get a poison pill amendment added to make it worse for everybody else?” Conaway said.