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With a Bit of Help, House GOP Breezes Past Farm Bill Obstacles

Democrats joined the Republican majority to defeat the final challenges to crop subsidies in the House farm bill on Thursday, immediately followed by two-party teamwork to reject a more stringent line of SNAP work requirements than were written into the bill. Afterward, House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX) said the path was clear for passage of the bill, probably today.

Written by Conaway, the House farm bill would require up to 9 million “work-capable” adults ages 18 to 59 to work at least 20 hours a week or spend an equal amount of time in job training or workfare to qualify for SNAP benefits. The bill also tightens eligibility rules. Democrats say it will drive 2 million people from the program.

House Democrats said they had been blindsided by Conaway’s insistence on tough work rules, and that dispute led to the most partisan farm bill in decades. “This is a cruel bill,” said Jim McGovern (D-MA), a leading SNAP proponent. Republicans, for their part, said the work and job-training provisions would propel people into self-sufficiency. The White House endorsed the bill as a step toward major welfare reform.

On back-to-back-to-back votes, Republicans and Democrats combined to thwart challenges to the bill. They defeated an amendment by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) to remove production controls on U.S.-grown sugar, 278-137; an amendment by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) to phase out farm subsidies over the next 12 years, 380-34; and a McClintock amendment to apply the 20-hour work requirement to far more SNAP recipients, 330-83.

The key vote of the day, according to Conaway, was the first, on sugar. “I called in a lot of chits,” he said. Given the frigid inter-party relations over the work requirement, he was surprised when Democrats joined in routing the sugar amendment. “I talked to Conaway for the first time in five weeks. He came and thanked me,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee. “We delivered.”

For the most part, Democrats provided little help to the Republican majority. They refused almost uniformly to offer amendments or to aid floor consideration of the bill. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said the bill was so flawed that the Agriculture Committee should be told to start over. Democrats tried twice to prevent consideration of the bill, losing both times on party-line votes.

The three dozen members of the small-government House Freedom Caucus threatened to withhold their support from the bill unless GOP leaders agreed to call a vote on an immigration bill. Republicans control the House 235-193 over Democrats, with seven vacant seats. They might not be able to pass a farm bill if more than two dozen members defect.

“I think we’ll get there tomorrow. … Assuming that gets worked out [by GOP leaders] — and I assume it gets done — then we pass it,” said Conaway. “There are no poison pills left on the table.”

The farm bill would spend about $87 billion a year, three-fourths of it on food stamps. Written every few years, the broad-spectrum legislation covers public nutrition, crop supports, land stewardship, foreign food aid, agricultural research, farm exports, crop insurance, and rural economic development.

Traditionally, rural and urban lawmakers have supported farm bills because the broad-ranging legislation covers issues important to their districts. This is the second farm bill in a row to stretch the rural-urban coalition to its limits, or even splinter it.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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