WASHINGTON - The House and Senate Agriculture Committees laid the groundwork this week for reducing the size of the federal food stamp program, approving farm bills that would shrink food aid and alter the way people qualify for it.
The two chambers are far apart on how much the $80 billion-a-year program should be cut, however, reflecting a deep ideological and at times emotional divide on the role of government in helping the poor.
Resolving those differences will be key to passage of the massive five-year farm bill that lawmakers are attempting to push through for the third year in a row. The far-reaching bill costs almost $100 billion annually over five years and would set policy for farm subsidies, rural programs and food aid.
Legislation approved by the House Agriculture Committee late Wednesday would cut about $2.5 billion a year, or a little more than 3 per cent, from the food stamp program, which is used by 1 in 7 Americans. A Senate Agriculture Committee bill approved a day earlier would cut less than a fifth of that amount.
At both committee meetings, debate over the food stamp cuts was heated, with defenders of the program saying the bills would take food out of the mouths of children and the elderly. In the House, the discussion turned to the Bible.
Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., quoted the Gospel of Matthew in opposing the cuts: "When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink."
In response, several Republicans talked about their Christianity and said the Bible encourages people to help each other but doesn't dictate what the federal government should do. "We should be doing this as individuals, helping the poor," said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., offered an amendment to do away with the cuts that was rejected by the panel. "Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever — we're failing our brothers and sisters here," McGovern said.
In the Senate committee meeting, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called votes for the program a moral statement.
Such deeply-held beliefs are likely to be on display when the full Senate takes up the bill next week and when the House takes it up later this summer. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has acknowledged he will have to appease all sides as he tries to get the bill passed, balancing calls from House conservatives to cut the program further with Senate Democrats who are reluctant to touch it.
"I expect it to come from all directions," Lucas said of the food stamp debate.
The food stamp issue tripped up the bill last year after House conservatives called for deeper cuts and House leaders never brought the bill up for consideration. This year, GOP leaders have said the full House will consider the bill this summer.
The House legislation would achieve the cuts partly by eliminating what is called categorical eligibility, or giving people automatic food stamp benefits when they sign up for certain other programs. It also would save dollars by targeting states that give people who don't have heating bills very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits.
Republicans argued that the cut is small relative to the size of the program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and that people who qualify for the aid could still sign up for it; they just wouldn't be automatically enrolled.
The Senate bill saves money in the food stamp program only by targeting the heating assistance dollars, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has made it clear she will not support eliminating categorical eligibility or the cuts in the House bill.
"I absolutely reject the level of cuts and the way this is done in the House," Stabenow told reporters Thursday.
Last year more than 47 million people used the SNAP program with the cost more than doubling since 2008. The rolls rose rapidly because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus law.
Republicans criticized Obama in last year's presidential campaign for his expansion of the program, and many House conservatives have refused to consider a farm bill without cuts to food stamps, which make up about 80 per cent of the bill's cost.
The House bill would cut around $4 billion a year from food aid and farm spending, while the Senate bill would trim roughly $2.4 billion. Those reductions include more than $600 million in yearly savings from across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year.
Much of the savings in the House and Senate bills comes from eliminating annual direct payments, a subsidy frequently criticized because it isn't tied to production or crop prices. Part of that savings would go toward deficit reduction, but the rest of the money would create new programs and raise subsidies for some crops while business is booming in the agricultural sector.
The Senate bill would eliminate direct payments immediately, while the House bill would phase out payments to cotton farmers, who rely on the program, over the next two years.
Like the Senate bill, the House measure also includes concessions to Southern rice and peanut growers who also depend on direct payments. The bills would lower the threshold for rice and peanut subsidies to kick in when prices drop.
There are protections for other crops as well. Both bills would boost federally subsidized crop insurance and create a new program that covers smaller losses on planted crops before crop insurance kicks in, favouring Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, who use crop insurance most often.
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick