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Farm bill cuts judged both too much, not enough

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2013

A year after they failed to pass a farm bill and suffered for it in several big congressional races, House Republicans think they've finally got the right balance to fund agricultural programs while weaning more Americans off food stamp benefits.

Speaker John A. Boehner has thrown his weight behind bringing this year's bill to the chamber floor, and debate kicks off on Tuesday.

But House GOP leaders will have to bridge divides within the GOP, and may have to count on getting Democratic votes for passage. The Senate, led by Democrats, passed its own version last week.

Both the Senate and House bills would end direct payments to farmers in favor of more extensive crop insurance programs.

But the sheer size of spending contained in the bills — particularly on food stamps, which takes up 80 percent of the Senate's five-year, $500 billion farm bill — could become a sticking point during the House debate.

"The bill should be rejected outright for its price tag and its expansion of the government's outsized and outdated role in American agriculture," Stephen Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said Monday.

The Senate passed a farm bill last week that cuts the food-stamp program — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — by about $400 million a year, or half a percent.

But the House version goes further, cutting SNAP benefits by $2 billion a year, or a little more than 3 percent, and making it more difficult for some people to qualify.

Some GOP lawmakers say that's still not enough, while House Democrats argue that low-income families cannot absorb the cuts. As of Monday, 134 of them had co-sponsored a resolution that asks members to reject any legislation that reduces food stamp benefits.

"This, for me, is the deal breaker," Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said of the SNAP cuts during a meeting Monday of the House Rules Committee to set the parameters for debate and offer amendments to the farm bill.

The House bill is projected to cost $939 billion in 2014-2013 while reducing spending from current levels by $33.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The CBO said the Senate bill would cost $955 billion over 10 years while cutting spending by nearly $18 billion.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, Oklahoma Republican, who shepherded the House bill through his committee in May, noted that "no other committee in Congress is voluntarily cutting money, in a bipartisan way."

Rep. Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat and the ranking minority agriculture committee member, said "it is past time to get this bill done."

But Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, said Monday it will launch an advertising blitz in a bipartisan slate of 15 congressional districts, including Mr. Boehner's, that takes aim at the House bill. The group says the bill is bloated by food-stamp spending and that "well-connected corporations" will get the rest of the funds.

Last year, Mr. Boehner declined to bring a farm bill to the House floor to avoid a nasty intraparty fight ahead of the November elections, as farm state Republicans pushed for crop subsidies while other GOP conservatives demanded widespread cuts.

Democrats in North Dakota and Montana used the issue to attack Republican challengers, and GOP Senate candidates in those states — both of whom were in the House at the time — ended up losing races that political handicappers had expected them to win.

The 2008 farm bill expired in September, so benefits have been shored up through temporary funding extensions.

"I think it was a mistake that we didn't have the opportunity to vote on this last year," Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, said Monday.

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