WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democrats fell short in efforts Wednesday to block cuts to the food stamp program as the House Agriculture Committee moved ahead on a half-trillion-dollar bill to fund farm and nutrition programs over the next five years. Similarly, a Republican attempt to make deeper cuts to the program was defeated.
The program that helps feed 46 million people at a cost of near $80 billion a year, about 80 percent of farm bill spending, was the dominant issue as committee members tried to advance one of the larger and more expensive bills that Congress is taking up this year. Democrats insisted that any cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would result in people going hungry. Republicans said they were merely trying to bring efficiency to a program to ensure that anyone who is qualified for food benefits will receive them.
The committee's draft measure would save $3.5 billion a year from current spending levels through such steps as ending the practice of direct payments for nonactive farmers and consolidating conservation programs. Of that, $1.6 billion in savings would come from tightening eligibility rules and ending abuses in the food stamp program.
The Senate version of the farm bill passed last month on a bipartisan vote would save about $2.3 billion a year, with $400 million coming from the food stamp program.
The House and Senate must reach a compromise before the current farm bill expires at the end of September.
House GOP leaders have not committed to bringing the legislation to the floor, where its chances of passage are clouded. Conservatives are balking at the price and Democrats are unhappy with prospective food stamp cuts.
In earlier votes Wednesday, the committee also rejected amendments affecting the sugar and dairy industries.
The panel defeated, on a 31-15 vote, a proposal by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., that would have eliminated all the proposed cuts to food stamps. The cuts, he said, would deprive some 2 million to 3 million people of food assistance and would "literally take food away from hungry people." Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., told his colleagues, "I once relied on food stamps." Without that aid, he said, "I wouldn't have been able to feed my son and my wife."
But Republicans pointed to the sharp rise in beneficiaries, from 19 million in 2002 to 46 million a decade later, and current policies that encourage further enrollment as a means to stimulate the economy or fight obesity by promoting healthier eating. The proposed House cuts would target practices by many states of waiving food stamp asset and income limits for people receiving other welfare benefits or giving minimal heating aid to people so they are eligible for increased food stamp assistance.
The committee chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., stressed that no qualified people would be deprived of help. "I believe most Americans will agree that a 2 percent cut in food stamps is reasonable," he said.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, also voted against the McGovern amendment, saying that while he was concerned about changes to nutrition programs in the bill, "I understand that these are the cuts that need to be done" to get the bill through the committee and the House.
The committee also rejected, by 28-15, an amendment by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., that would have agreed to the Senate plan to reduce food stamp spending by $400 million a year.
Later, half of the 26 Republicans on the committee joined Democrats in a 33-13 vote to defeat an amendment by Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., to double the food stamp reductions to $3.3 billion a year. Several Republicans acknowledged that deeper cuts would make it more difficult to reach a compromise with the Democratic-led Senate. "We will have squandered our one really good chance of getting beyond" the level of reductions in the Senate bill, said Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas.
The House bill also differs from its Senate counterpart by preserving a price support program that pays farmers when prices fall below certain levels. The target price system is favored by Southern rice and peanut farmers, who objected to the elimination of price supports in the Senate bill.
The House measure gives farmers a choice between the price support program and a taxpayer-paid revenue protection program included in the Senate bill that compensates farmers for modest revenue losses before crop insurance kicks in. The need for a strong safety net program became more pronounced as heat and drought threatened to seriously damage the Midwestern corn crop.
The committee defeated, by 36-10, an amendment by Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., that would have brought changes to federal sugar policy that for eight decades has protected beet and sugarcane growers and sugar refiners by controlling prices and limiting imports. Goodlatte argued that government supports drove up prices, forced food companies to move overseas and cost jobs. The amendment was pushed by beverage companies, confectioners and consumer groups.
But supporters of the current policy said it did not cost the government anything and protected producers from a surge in Mexican or Brazilian imports. Similar efforts in the Senate to repeal or reduce the scope of current sugar policy failed.
The House panel also rejected, by 29-17, another amendment by Goodlatte and Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., that would have removed a requirement for dairy farmers participating in a new voluntary risk management program to also agree to be subject to supply management controls where they would have to cut production when surpluses drive down prices.