Ryan, GOP scramble to win support for controversial farm bill

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Republican leaders are scrambling to lock down enough votes for the GOP farm bill, with members still divided over the measure’s sugar support program and work requirements for food stamps.

The legislation, a top priority for retiring Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) because it contains elements of welfare reform, is scheduled to hit the floor this week.

{mosads}But House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway said Republicans are shy of the 218 votes needed to pass the bill. Still, the Texas Republican expressed confidence that he can flip enough members by working the phones over the weekend, clearing up any questions and concerns and pointing out that some amendments will get a floor vote.

“We believe we’ll get there. We’ve got several folks that are still reading the bill and coming to their own conclusions. We’ve got a lot of undecideds,” Conaway said Thursday. “I’ll be working with them over the weekend to get them to where they need to be, and get whatever information they need so they’ll understand exactly what the bill does.”

“I believe we’ll be there next week and we’ll have it on the floor,” he added.

Conaway also met with President Trump at the White House on Thursday afternoon, following reports that he may veto the bill if it doesn’t include stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients.

But Conaway said no veto threat was discussed. In fact, he said, Trump was supportive of his effort — a sentiment that could go a long way with some of the conservatives who are still skeptical over certain components of the farm plan.

“It went really well. The president is very smart and it became crystal clear right off the bat though that he has a real heart for the folks living in rural America. … He wants to help them, and he said that multiple times,” Conaway said. 

“He’s also a really strong proponent of the work requirements being improved in SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], because he believes that work is a pathway to prosperity and that our program should help people get on that path and not trap them in some sort of public assistance program.”

Ryan and his leadership team have been aggressively working to build support for the farm bill over the past few weeks, holding listening sessions, inviting Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to a GOP whip team meeting and dispatching Conaway to an American Enterprise Institute event aimed at highlighting the proposal.

Leaders have also held three member briefings and two staff-level briefings to gain feedback from lawmakers, while House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) has been continually discussing the legislation with members.

As a way to attract more support, Republican leaders are expected to allow a structured debate process that enables some germane amendments to receive a floor vote.

The five-year farm bill authorizes a number of farm, agricultural and food programs that are set to expire at the end of September.

But the bulk of the measure’s funding — and one of the areas that has been a lightning rod in the debate — goes toward SNAP, also known as food stamps.

This year’s farm bill would impose tougher work requirements on millions of food stamp recipients and shift the program’s funding toward job training — a change that Ryan and the GOP say will help lift people out of poverty.

Under the measure, 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 to qualify for food stamps. People who are elderly, disabled or pregnant would be exempt from the requirements.

But the contentious idea has sparked a bitter intraparty fight in the House. Moderate Republicans worry that the new requirements are too tough and will prevent 1 million people from getting food assistance.

“I have concerns regarding SNAP,” said Rep. Leonard Lance (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.”

Democrats have also slammed the idea as cruel and claim it is nothing more than a messaging bill since it stands little chance of passing the Senate. Democrats walked away from the normally bipartisan farm bill process earlier this year when Republicans decided to include the SNAP revamp.

“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,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority whip, told reporters this week. “It is my understanding they don’t have the votes on their side of the aisle.”

While the SNAP overhaul has helped woo some conservatives who would normally oppose the farm bill — and GOP leaders have highlighted the changes as a key selling point — other hard-liners say the changes don’t go far enough and have been pushing for actual funding cuts to SNAP.

“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 Jordan (R-Ohio), a former chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “I’ve got to see if this is good enough.”

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

One way to get more wavering Republicans on board with the farm bill is to allow them to vote on some amendments. So far, nearly 100 amendments have been submitted to the House Rules Committee, which will meet this week to set the rules for floor debate.

Conaway, however, has suggested that 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 earlier this week.

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), a member of the Freedom Caucus, told The Hill he plans to offer a slate of amendments related to federal nutrition programs, including one that would send SNAP money to states based on their actual enrollment numbers, not just on the number of people who are eligible.  

If there is an open debate and amendment process, Davidson said, he would be more willing to support the final farm bill.

“I whipped undecided, because I thought it was important to have a meaningful amendment process,” Davidson said.

SNAP isn’t the only sticking point that has emerged in the farm bill.

Members have also been fighting over the bill’s federal sugar program, which aims to keep sugar prices high by imposing restrictions on sugar imports and controlling how much sugar is produced in the U.S. The program also offers nonrecourse loans to domestic sugar producers.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a member of the House Rules Committee, is pushing for a sugar reform amendment that would give the Agriculture secretary more flexibility to allow sugar imports and ensure taxpayers don’t foot the bill for bailouts of the sugar industry. The idea has gained some steam among conservatives.

But Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a member of the Freedom Caucus, is fiercely pushing back against the amendment, which he warned would be a poison pill if it gets adopted. Conaway has even vowed to vote against his own legislation if the sugar reform language were included.

Yoho was making the rounds on Thursday during floor votes to encourage his Republican colleagues to oppose the provision.

“We prefer they don’t support it, because if they do, it throws the farm bill in jeopardy,” Yoho told The Hill.

It’s unclear, however, whether the Foxx amendment will even get a vote. Ryan said that while he supports sugar reforms, he also wants the legislation to be able to pass the House.

And given Trump’s new tariff policies and trade negotiations, some Republicans are reluctant to further shake up the agriculture industry.

“There are a lot of things people would like to change, but when you look at market conditions for farmers, when you look at where prices are and the impact of current trade negations, this is not the time to make big changes,” Davidson said.

Tags Donald Trump farm bill Food Stamps Jim Jordan Leonard Lance Mike Conaway Paul Ryan Snap Sonny Perdue Steny Hoyer Steve Scalise Ted Yoho Virginia Foxx Warren Davidson

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