There was a rare moment of candor on the House floor last week.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, a committee chairman and the man who led House Republicans to their majority in 2010, was explaining why he and his colleagues decided to drop the food stamp program from the farm bill.
“What we have carefully done is exclude some extraneous pieces,” he said.
Extraneous? For almost 50 years, food stamps have been part of the annual farm bill, and the $80 billion spent on the program keeps tens of millions of Americans, about half of them children, from going hungry.
“Kids going to bed hungry at night in this nation is extraneous?” asked Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
“The 47 million people who are on SNAP” — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — “are not extraneous,” argued Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “They are important. They are part of our community.”
And on Thursday afternoon, they were figuratively banished from the American community. Without a single Democratic vote, House Republicans narrowly passed a bill that, if allowed to stand, would provide hundreds of billions of dollars in agriculture subsidies but not a dime for the hungry.
Happily, Americans are unlikely to starve as a result of Thursday’s vote because the Senate won’t allow the House’s farm bill to become law if the food stamp program isn’t restored. Even some House Republicans, uneasy about what they had done, spoke of having a separate vote on food stamps in the coming weeks.
But as a political matter, the food stamp folly shows just what a difficult situation Republican leaders find themselves in. For the second time in two days, they had been forced to placate conservatives in their own ranks by taking a position that alienates crucial segments of the electorate.
On Wednesday, the House GOP caucus huddled and determined that, because of conservatives’ objections, they would not take up the bipartisan Senate immigration bill, or any major immigration legislation, anytime soon. At House Speaker John Boehner’s weekly news conference Thursday, NBC’s Luke Russert pointed out that Republicans won’t be able to win the presidency with “all white folks.” He asked whether Republicans were putting themselves “at a disadvantage with the fastest-growing electoral voting group for another generation.”
“Well,” responded Boehner. “I didn’t know this was an opinion show here.”
Actually, it’s not a matter of opinion but of demographics.
Republicans were in a similar position Thursday when party leaders moved to win the votes of conservative holdouts who had sent the farm bill down to defeat weeks earlier. But their narrow victory came at a huge cost: blowing up the urban/rural coalition that had passed such bills for decades, and inviting new charges that Republicans are hostile to racial minorities — 36 percent of food stamp beneficiaries are identified as white — and the poor.
The debate brought to the well of the House a procession of indignant members of the black and Hispanic caucuses.
“Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus are appalled that the Republicans are determined to defund food stamps and place vulnerable Americans in a position of not being able to feed their families. Shame on you,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. “It’s despicable. What is it about poor people you don’t like?”
Some Republicans on the floor jeered as Butterfield accused them of implementing a “Republican tea party” agenda to defund food stamps.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said that “there are seniors in my district who eat dog food when their food stamps run out.”
Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, said he opposed the bill “as chair of the CHC,” shorthand for the Hispanic caucus, because “it hurts America’s poor children and senior citizens.” The speaker pro tempore then provoked a procedural fight with Democrats by penalizing their debating time because Hinojosa had “engaged in embellishment” by identifying himself as head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Democrats filled several hours making impassioned speeches and throwing up procedural delays, demanding votes to adjourn and appealing the speaker’s parliamentary judgment. Some of the more truculent Republicans responded in kind; Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas kept jumping up from his chair and objecting to Democrats’ requests, until Boehner’s floor leader put her hand on Gohmert’s chair and asked him to cool it.
Gohmert did, eventually. But his aerobics aren’t what’s jeopardizing the Republicans’ future. It’s the way they’re voting.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org