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Massive farm bill gets needed push across the House finish line

$1 trillion for food stamps, subsidies

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House Republican leaders Wednesday needed Democrats to help them push a big bill across the finish line — in this case, the massive farm bill, which spends nearly $1 trillion over the next decade on food stamps and farm subsidies.

Conservative groups said the legislation is bloated with special projects and spends too much, and liberals objected to further restrictions on food stamp benefits for some people.

But a centrist coalition held firm, passing the bill by a 251-166 vote with 89 Democrats joining 162 Republicans.

“All Americans stand to benefit in some way from this farm bill, which maintains critical assistance for families in need and improves programs for producers while cutting the cost of government,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “More reform is needed, but this is an improvement over current law, and there are no earmarks.”

The bill, negotiated by House Republicans and Senate Democrats, is long overdue. The government has been running for years on an extension of the old farm bill.

Senators said they will take up the legislation this week.

The bill makes major changes to the farm subsidy system, ending most direct payments to farmers and replacing them with a crop insurance program designed to protect against major dips in prices.

Lawmakers also made some changes to food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including preventing states from giving families nominal subsidies for fuel assistance to qualify for higher food benefits.

Most lawmakers said that was a loophole that should be closed, but liberal lawmakers said the changes will hurt those already struggling after food stamp benefits were cut in November.

“Those arguments are easy to make in the comfort of our warm homes with our full bellies, but they ring hollow for someone who will have to take their medicine on an empty stomach,” said Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat.

Many Democrats, however, said they joined Republicans in supporting the bill despite its shortcomings because it would provide much-needed stability for farmers and ranchers over the next five years.

“At the end of the day, I believe my reservations are outweighed by the need to provide long-term certainty for agriculture,” Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said Wednesday on the floor.

An earlier House version of the farm bill included a provision that would have required members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and their immediate family members to disclose how much crop insurance assistance they receive.

But that provision disappeared in the final version, leaving taxpayer groups to complain that Congress was trying to shield itself from scrutiny.

Even as the bill was advancing, some lawmakers vowed to write legislation to change provisions they didn’t like.

Rep. Jim Costa, California Democrat, said he is introducing bipartisan legislation to change country-of-origin labeling requirements left in place by the farm bill. Critics say the labeling requirements could lead to retaliatory taxes from Mexico or Canada.

Rep. Steve Womack, Arkansas Republican, said he will work to loosen labeling requirements and restrict the authority of the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration. He supported the bill Wednesday but said he hopes to take another stab at fixes during this year’s appropriations process.

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