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House GOP struggles to get votes for farm bill amid fights over food stamps, immigration  1 Week ago

Source:   USA Today  

WASHINGTON — House Republicans are bracing for a food fight on Friday over the farm bill – with GOP lawmakers sharply divided over everything from sugar subsidies to food stamp benefits in a melee that could jeopardize the bill’s chances of passage.

The $868 billion House bill would set food and farm policy for the next five years — affecting everything from crop subsidies to rural development to land conservation.

But the most contentious element of the GOP-crafted bill would dramatically revamp the food stamp program by restricting eligibility and requiring millions of low-income Americans who receive nutritional assistance to work at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a job training program. 

Democrats fiercely oppose those changes — saying that many food stamp recipients already work and the new requirements could cost families vital nutritional assistance.

House GOP leaders say the new mandates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamp program's official name, will encourage able-bodied adults to move into the workforce and reduce their reliance on a federal program that Republicans argue has ballooned to unsustainable levels. 

“We are focusing on empowering people,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters on Wednesday. He said the GOP bill would provide jobs and training “to help get people out of poverty and on to the ladder of opportunity.”

About 44 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2016, compared with about 26 million in 2007. 

Some conservatives say the bill does not go far enough in reining in the SNAP program. It’s not clear how many hardliners will oppose the farm bill over that issue, but some are threatening to withhold support for the farm bill over an unrelated immigration measure.

At the same time, Republican leaders are also trying to quell divisions among GOP lawmakers who want to preserve price supports and other market controls for the sugar industry — and those who say the current sugar program amounts to corporate welfare for a powerful interest group.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Va., is pushing an amendment that would eliminate "marketing allotments" for sugar — limits on how much sugar individual producers can sell. Her amendment would also kill a program under which the government buys surplus sugar and re-sells it to ethanol plants and other companies at a loss. Both programs are designed to prop up prices for domestically produced sugar. 

Foxx says under the current system, "taxpayers and manufacturers bear all of the risks in the form of bailouts, uncertainty and shortages, while the sugar industry reaps guaranteed rewards." 

Her amendment enjoys broad support among conservatives, but it could drive away other GOP lawmakers from sugar-producing states. 

With a House vote expected on Friday, Rep. Mike Conway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, signaled he was still working to round up enough GOP votes for the bill.

There’s “a lot of misinformation” about the food stamp changes and other provisions, Conway said Thursday. “I’ve been working to quiet that down.”

Under the GOP proposal, food stamp recipients between the ages of 18 to 59 would have to either work or participate in a training program for at least 20 hours each week — with exemptions for pregnant women, the disabled, and certain other groups.

About 1.2 million Americans would lose food stamp benefits under the Republican bill by 2028, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Most of those — 62 percent — would be adults who live in households with children, the CBO estimates.

Republicans say that in the current economy—with record low unemployment—SNAP beneficiaries should be able to find plenty of opportunities to join the workforce. Critics say in reality, low-wage workers in food service and other retail jobs often have little control over their schedules and their employers can change their hours from one week to the next.  

Democrats say the food stamp restrictions are too severe and would hurt children and the elderly, among other vulnerable groups.

“What they are doing is really shameful,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters on Wednesday. She noted that a number of faith-based and anti-hunger groups have come out against the bill.

In addition, the powerful seniors' advocacy group AARP issued a plea to lawmakers Wednesday to reject the bill, saying the food stamp program is a vital part of the safety net for America's elderly. 

"SNAP is an especially important program for older Americans because many live on fixed incomes and have limited financial resources to spend on basic necessities like food and housing," the AARP said in its missive. 

Conservatives have a different objection to the SNAP changes. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said that the GOP bill would create a massive new job training program, with no guarantee it will be money well spent.

“I have not found a jobs program in the federal government that ever works,” Meadows said in a C-SPAN interview last week. Meadows said it would be a “foolish mistake” to channel more federal funding into such efforts.

Meadows said the Freedom Caucus can probably accept the food stamp provisions but they are seeking concessions on another hot-button issue: immigration. 

He and others are pushing for a full House vote on a hardline bill that would slash legal immigration by at least 25% and crack down on “sanctuary cities” that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts, among other things.

Democrats staunchly oppose that GOP immigration bill, and it doesn’t even have enough Republican support to pass the House. But Meadows said he wants lawmakers to be forced to go on the record with a "yes" or "no" vote.

“At this point there’s a number of us who are not willing to vote for the farm bill until we get some clear resolution on what we’re going to do on immigration,” Meadows said. The Freedom Caucus has 30-some members, enough to torpedo the farm bill if they vote as a bloc.

Congress must pass a new farm bill before the end of September, when the current law expires. The Senate is crafting its own farm bill that's like to differ sharply from the House proposal, in part because 60 votes will be required for a farm bill to pass in that chamber. That means at least some Democrats will need to support it. Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 majority and Sen. John McCain has been out of Washington due to health reasons. 

 

 

 

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