The House approved a Republican plan Thursday to cut food stamps by $39 billion during the next decade, setting up a showdown with Democrats over the program used by nearly 48 million low-income Americans.
The House voted 217-210 for the bill that cuts nearly twice as much from food stamps as a bill the House rejected in June. It is also far more than a Senate measure passed earlier this year that would trim about $4.5 billion in spending. The bill failed to draw the support of a single Democrat, many of whom have said the steep cuts would erode a key safety net depended on by families with children, seniors, veterans and people looking for work.
Fifteen Republicans also voted against the bill.
Republicans argued that the bill would restore the program's original eligibility limits and preserve the safety net for the truly needy.
The bill would cause 3 million people to lose benefits while another 850,000 would see their benefits cut, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. The White House threatened Wednesday to veto the bill, calling food stamps one of the "nation's strongest defenses against hunger and poverty."
The battle over food stamps has left in limbo the future of farm policy, and slowed efforts to write a new five-year, $500 billion farm bill. The current law expires on Sept. 30.
In June, the House rejected the farm bill in a floor vote that was seen as a major setback to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Democrats argued that the cuts in the bill were too severe, and Republicans opposed the bill because of costs they said were still too high.
A few weeks later, the House broke the farm bill into two separate chunks, narrowly approving the subsidy and conservation section but reserving the food stamp portion for later.
The cost of food stamps -- officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has exploded over the past decade, according to the Department of Agriculture. In 2001, the program served 17 million people at a cost of just over $15 billion. By June of this year, there were 47.8 million people enrolled in the program, and annual costs were around $75 billion.
Republicans argue that the growth has been fueled by allowing states to waive eligibility requirements, allowing more people to enroll in the program than the law originally intended.
The bill originally passed by the House Agriculture Committee would have cut $20 billion from the program over 10 years, in large part by limiting the ability of states to automatically qualify people who are already enrolled in other anti-poverty programs. Earlier this week, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., introduced a new version of the bill that boosts the cuts to nearly $40 billion by adding stiffer requirements for many able-bodied recipients to be working or looking for work or in a job training program. The bill does not include new funding for job training.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that under current law, "spending for SNAP would total $764 billion over the 2014-2023 period." Passage of the House bill would reducet those costs by $39 billion or about a 5%.
Rep. Debbie Waserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, told USA TODAY's Capital Download Thursday Democrats are not opposed to food stamp cuts.
"I'm certain that we could embrace as House Democrats some measure of cuts," she said. "I mean, every program can benefit from some savings. But the first go round the Republicans' proposed cut was $20 billion. Then they passed an amendment that was $31.4 billion. And now that still isn't good enough for the Tea Partiers. Now we're at $40 billion. What they're saying is that in America it's OK for people to go hungry."
But Agriculture Committee member Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said Thursday "we are not talking about eliminating the SNAP program." The goal of the bill, he said, is to "limit the public assistance program to those who qualify and close loopholes that have allowed people to game the system." The changes will help "keep the safety net intact for qualified families," he said.
Despite the divide between Republicans and Democrats over food stamps, lawmakers in the House and the Senate are expected to move quickly to try to write a farm bill that includes both food stamps and agricultural programs.
If Congress cannot pass a bill, the food stamp program would continue in its present state, with no cuts.