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Close vote looms in U.S. House on big Republican food-stamp cuts

Michael Williamson | The Washington Post
Michael Williamson | The Washington Post
A store in Belle Glade, Fla., advertises its participation in the federal food stamp program on Aug. 14, 2013.
By Reuters

WASHINGTON — Food-stamp defenders appealed for two dozen Republican defectors to help kill their party’s proposed $40 billion cut in the main U.S. antihunger program as a close vote nears later this week in the House of Representatives.

The reforms pushed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and fiscal conservatives would end benefits for roughly 10 percent of recipients. They would restrict eligibility for a program that has doubled in enrollment and tripled in cost since 2004.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Tuesday, “We do know of several Republicans” who opposed the cuts, but she declined to name them. Republicans control the House 233-200, so Democrats need at least 17 cross-overs to defeat the bill and Republicans need a party-line vote to pass it.

David Beckman, leader of antihunger group Bread for the World, said activists were talking to more than 20 Republican lawmakers in the hope of persuading them to oppose the bill. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, a leader in the group Food Policy Action, said: “We need 20 House members to do the right thing.”

The White House threatened to veto a bill in June that proposed $20 billion in food stamp cuts.

“If $20 billion in cuts is unacceptable, $40 billion is doubly unacceptable,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week.

Food stamps, which cost $78 billion last year, are the overriding issue in the development of a new farm bill, a year overdue and offering slim hope of passage at present.

The House vote on food stamps could open the door to House-Senate negotiations on a final version of the $500 billion, five-year farm bill, although analysts say it might be hard to write a compromise that will pass Congress. The Senate has voted for $4 billion in food stamp reforms. Both chambers want to expand the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance system.

At a news conference, Pelosi and two other Democrats praised food stamps as the cost-efficient bulwark against hunger in a weak economy and decried the proposed cuts as heartless and immoral in trying to win over wavering Republicans.

“Don’t do this,” said Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, who described the $40 billion in cuts as an ideologue’s “fever dream.”

The Cantor-backed package would limit able-bodied adults without dependents to three months of food stamps in a three-year period unless they worked part-time or were in a workfare or job-training program. And it would end a provision, created by the 1996 welfare reform law, that allows states to give food stamps to people whose assets are larger than usually allowed.

Those two steps would save $39 billion over 10 years and reduce enrollment by almost 4 million people in 2014, said the Congressional Budget Office. Another reform would reduce benefits by $90 a month for 850,000 households.

“No individual who meets the income and asset guidelines of the … program and is willing to comply with the applicable work requirements will lose benefits as a result of these reforms,” Cantor said in a Sept. 6 memo to Republicans.

Critics such as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities say the impact of the three-month limit will be harsh because workfare and job-training programs are not large enough to handle the need, so people would lose benefits if they cannot find work quickly. States now can apply for waivers of the three-month limit during times of high unemployment.

The Republican package would satisfy a goal of conservative reformers. It would split apart the farm subsidy and nutrition programs, traditionally considered in a single omnibus bill. In the future, they would be considered separately, which reformers say will make it easier to cut wasteful spending.

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