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House narrowly passes nutrition cuts

The House of Representatives took the next step toward getting a five year farm bill with passage of nearly $40 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program after hours of bitter, partisan debate Thursday.

The nutrition title of the farm bill that was stripped out of the House legislation last summer, passed by a vote of 217 to 210. No Democrats voted for the bill. Fifteen Republicans voted against it.

The bill doubles the amount of cuts written by the House Ag Committee this year and is 10 times what the Senate farm bill cuts. It contains work requirements for able-bodied recipients of SNAP benefits. Democrats called it draconian and inhumane at a time when there are three applicants for every available job. Republicans said it maintains the integrity of the program for those who truly need it and would bring the dignity of work to others. 

Speaking for the bill, Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), said he had worked for a bipartisan farm bill.

"I think most of you know that I would have preferred that this had been accomplished a year ago," he said.

But, he added, the House would have no say in the nutrition title of a final farm bill if it sends members to a House-Senate conference committee without passing its own nutrition bill.

"I know you're going to vote your conscience, but I ask you, let me go to conference with the maximum number of options to work through," Lucas said.

Earlier in the day, the Ag Committee's Ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson (D-MN) spoke against the bill, which ends the power for governors to seek a waiver from existing work requirements for SNAP when the Great Recession increased unemployment. 

"To be fair, these waivers are granted only at the request of the states," Peterson said. And the majority of Republican governors have asked to waive the requirements, he said.

The House bill is strongly opposed by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). who said in a statement afterwards, "This bill will never pass the Senate and will never be signed by the President."  

Before the vote, Peterson said that "all this bill is going to do is make our job harder, if not impossible, to pass a new farm bill."

Still, farm groups welcomed another faltering step toward a bill that Peterson said he's been working on for four years.

In a statement, American Soybean Association President Danny Murphy, a Canton, Mississippi farmer, said the farm bill process had dragged on too long. The extension of the 2008 farm law passed last year expires at the end of this month, he said, and with it, "authority and funding for key market development, conservation, agricultural research, and price support programs."

"These are real consequences of inaction," Murphy said, "and we expect the House to appoint its conferees as soon as possible, and we call on both chambers to work across party lines to craft a bill that addresses the needs of both farmers and consumers."

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