WASHINGTON — Republicans muscled a pared-back agriculture bill through the House on Thursday, stripping out the food stamp program to satisfy recalcitrant conservatives but losing what little Democratic support the bill had when it failed last month. It was the first time that food stamps had not been a part of the farm bill since 1973.
The 216-208 vote saved House Republican leaders from an embarrassing reprisal of the unexpected defeat of a broader farm bill in June, but the future of agriculture policy remains uncertain. The food stamp program, formerly called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was 80 percent of the original bill’s cost, and it remains the centerpiece of the Senate’s bipartisan farm bill.
Even in a chamber used to acrimony, Thursday’s debate in the House was particularly brutal. Democrats repeatedly called for roll-call votes on parliamentary procedures and motions to adjourn, delaying the final vote by hours and charging Republicans over and over again with callousness and cruelty.
Republicans shouted protests, tried to silence the most strident Democrats and were repeatedly forced to vote to uphold their own parliamentary rulings.
Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he would try to draft a separate food stamp bill “as soon as I can achieve a consensus.” But conservatives remain determined to extract deep cuts to the program — cuts that members of both parties in the House and Senate have said they cannot support.
House and Senate negotiators could produce a compromise measure with the robust food stamp program the Senate wants, but the bill would almost certainly have to pass the House with significant Republican defections.
Asked if he would allow such a bill to come to a final vote, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio shrugged and said: “If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas. You’ve heard that before. My goal right now is to get the farm bill passed. We’ll get to those other issues later.”
By splitting farm policy from food stamps, the House effectively ended the decades-old political marriage between urban interests concerned about nutrition and rural areas that depend on farm subsidies.
“We wanted separation, and we got it,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., one of the bill’s chief authors. “You’ve got to take these wins when you can get them.”
Democrats denounced the bill as a naked attempt to make draconian cuts in the food stamp program.
“A vote for this bill is a vote to end nutrition in America,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Conn.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, called the House measure “an insult to rural America.”
The 608-page bill keeps changes that were made last month, and amendments were not allowed. The bill would save about $20 billion by consolidating or cutting numerous farm subsidy programs, including $5 billion paid annually to farmers and landowners whether they plant crops or not.
The money saved from eliminating those payments would be directed into the $9 billion crop insurance program, and new subsidies would be created for peanut, cotton and rice farmers. The bill adds money to support fruit and vegetable growers, and it restores insurance programs for livestock producers, which expired in 2011, leaving thousands of operations without disaster coverage during last year’s drought. The bill also eliminates a dairy program that controls the supply of milk produced and sold in the United States.
The new proposal would also repeal a provision in the current farm bill, called “permanent law” that causes farm programs to revert to 1949 price levels if a new farm bill is not passed. Congress has traditionally maintained the provision to prod Congress into passing a farm bill or face large increases in farm program expenditures. Without the provision, many lawmakers and farm groups fear there would be no incentive for Congress to pass a farm bill on time.