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Senate rejects farm bill food stamp changes

The Senate defeated two amendments to change food stamp spending in a farm bill being debated on the floor Tuesday. One, introduced by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) would have saved an estimated $31 billion over ten years. The other, proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would have rolled back the committee's cuts of $4 billion over a decade.

Roberts' amendment was defeated 58 to 40, with a few Republicans, including the ag committee's ranking Republican, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, voting with Democrats against it. Gillibrand's effort to avoid nearly all cuts to food stamps lost by a vote of 26 to 70. Opponents included many Democrats from farm states such as Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Al Franken of Minnesota.

Late in the afternoon, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), thanked her colleagues for making "great progress today."

"We are working hard to do everything possible to complete this legislation by the end of the week," she said.

The Senate bill does trim $4 billion from nutrition programs that include food stamps with several reforms. It gives USDA more money to prevent trafficking of food assistance benefits. It bans lottery winners from receiving food stamps and narrows eligibility for food stamps by college students. And it makes it harder for states to qualify recipients of federal aid for winter heating bills to also get food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP).

That last heating assistance loophole is viewed differently by Roberts and Gillibrand.

According to Roberts' office, his amendment would  eliminate the loophole affecting the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Participating state agencies annually issue extremely low LIHEAP benefits to qualify otherwise ineligible households for Standard Utility Allowances, which result in increased monthly SNAP benefits.

"For example, today a State agency can issue $1 annually in LIHEAP benefits to increase monthly SNAP benefits an average of $90 ($1,080 per year) for households that do not otherwise pay out-of-pocket utility bills," said a statement from Roberts' office.

Roberts also deals with SNAP benefits going to those receiving cash assistance as part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). Currently, States can automatically enroll recipients of the TANF program in SNAP, a procedure known as categorical eligibility.

At the encouragement of USDA, States are exploiting this provision by providing minimal TANF assistance to recipients in the form of informational brochures and 1–800 numbers which then qualifies them for SNAP benefits, Roberts' office said.  Roberts’ amendment requires that a recipient qualify specifically for cash assistance to automatically receive SNAP food benefits.

On the Senate floor, Stabenow said Roberts' amendment " goes way beyond what we have done in committee."

SNAP spending is already declining as the economy improves, she said.

Gillibrand argued against any cuts to heating assistance, saying it would hurt apartment dwellers whose higher fuel costs don't show up in utility bills.

"When congress proposes cuts to the food stamps program, it is not nameless, faceless people looking for a handout," Gillibrand said. Instead, those hurt will mainly be children, seniors and veterans.

Stabenow reluctantly opposed Gillibrand's amendment, too.

Roberts insisted that the Senate bill won't cut benefits to anyone who qualifies for food stamps and that Stabenow isn't trying to hurt the program.

"To say she is against food stamps for needy people, is ridiculous," Roberts said of Stabenow.

Roberts said the Gillibrand amendment was also aimed at crop insurance. It would have lowered the return on investment for crop insurers to 12% a year from the current 14% allowed by USDA. The Obama Administration has also proposed that change, which would save about $1.2 billion over a decade.

Last week the Administration repeated its call for more cuts to crop insurance spending in the farm bill, which were laid out when it released its proposed 2014 budget in April.

The Senate's farm bill expands crop insurance spending, which is likely to be a target of more amendments.

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