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U.S. House backs end to food stamps for 3.8 million in 2014


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks vote on the House floor on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 in Washington. House Republican leaders scrambled Thursday to line up support in advance of a late-afternoon vote on legislation that would cut nearly $4 billion a year from the food stamp program, now used by 1 in 7 Americans.

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The U.S. House narrowly voted to stop food-stamp benefits next year for an estimated 3.8 million Americans, despite a veto threat and lobbying by groups that feed the poor.

“Most people don’t choose to be on food stamps, most people want to go out and get a job,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor said before the 217-210 vote. “The reforms made by this bill will put people on the path to self-sufficiency and independence.”

The measure is designed to save $39 billion over 10 years. Advocates have been lobbying Capitol Hill, bringing in soup- kitchen leaders and a celebrity, Tom Colicchio from television’s “Top Chef,” to press lawmakers to vote against the cuts.

Lawmakers next must figure out how to merge this bill with one the Senate passed earlier this year that would reduce food- stamp spending by about $4 billion over 10 years.

“Today’s vote is not only a waste of our time, but an insult to every American in need,” Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge said on the House floor.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the legislation amounted to “snatching food out of the hands” of the poor. The Nevada Democrat said the House would do better to vote on a Senate-passed bill, which he described as saving $23 billion over a decade “without forcing needy children to skip meals.”

47 Million

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 47.7 million people received benefits under the largest food-aid program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in June 2013. That compares to 41.2 million people who received the benefits in June of 2009.

Under the bill, about 3.8 million people would lose eligibility for food stamps in fiscal 2014, which starts in October and runs through Sept. 30, 2014, according to a cost estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Those cuts would come through reducing work requirement and time limit waivers for childless adults, as well as restricting food stamp eligibility gained from enrollment in other social welfare programs. Enrollment cuts would taper off after fiscal 2014, CBO said, averaging 2.8 million a year.

Another provision of the bill would trim a home heating and cooling assistance program, cutting benefits for about 850,000 people by roughly $90 per month, CBO said.

Decline Forecast

CBO forecasts a roughly 30 percent decline in food stamp benefits over the next 10 years if current policies are continued unchanged. The cuts in the bill would be about 5 percent more than that.

The Republican measure would also allow states to require drug testing for recipients and block food stamps for lottery winners and from being spent at liquor stores.

The bill “will bring more integrity to the program,” South Dakota Republican Representative Kristi Noem said in an interview. “When you look at the fact that this program was initiated and started to help those in need for a short period of time, this program will certainly do that after the reforms we put in place today.’

The vote comes a day after the release of new Census Bureau data showing 46.5 million people living in poverty -- close to a two-decade high.

‘‘These cuts would affect a broad array of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, including working families with children, senior citizens, veterans, and adults who are still looking for work,’’ the White House said in a statement strongly opposing the bill and threatening a veto should it get to President Barack Obama’s desk.

Farm Complication

Democrats have said they won’t allow that to happen, and Republicans also said they expect this to be a starting point for House-Senate negotiations.

When food aid is discussed on Capitol Hill, the issue is entwined with subsidies for farmers because since the 1970s the two types of programs have been combined in a single piece of legislation, marrying the interests of rural and urban lawmakers.

The Senate wants to continue that marriage. Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other House Republicans prefer to deal with food for the poor separately from subsidies for agriculture.

The Senate passed a bill that seeks to make changes to federal crop-support and nutrition programs, trimming food-aid costs by about $4 billion over a decade. That compares to about $39 billion proposed in the House bill and $135 billion proposed in the House-adopted budget authored by 2012 vice presidential nominee Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said passage of the House food-aid bill would make it harder for the House and Senate to agree to a comprehensive farm-and-food bill.

Republicans have been pointing to the Clinton-era welfare law as an example they’re trying to follow.

‘‘It is also important to remember that many of the same groups criticizing the policies included in the House nutrition bill made similar criticisms of the 1996 Welfare Reform law, which were later shown to be inaccurate and alarmist,” Cantor’s office wrote in a memo distributed to lawmakers.

The number of the House food-aid bill is H.R. 3102. The Senate farm bill is S. 954.

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