The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — House Republicans narrowly passed a farm bill on Thursday that was stripped of hundreds of billions in funding for food stamps, abandoning four decades of precedent to gain the backing of conservative lawmakers.
The 216 to 208 vote was a victory for a Republican caucus that has struggled to pass the most basic of legislation, but it also set up weeks of acrimony and uncertainty as House and Senate leaders must reconcile two vastly different visions for providing subsidies to farmers and feeding the hungry.
The farm bill, which passed after hours of delay from irate Democrats, was the second act in a particularly hostile day on Capitol Hill – even by modern standards.
In the morning, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he planned to change long-standing Senate rules to push through presidential appointees that have been blocked by Republicans — a move so severe that it is known as the “nuclear option.” That led to a bitter, nearly two-hour exchange between the Nevada Democrat and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who at one point called Reid the “worst leader ever.”
Against that backdrop, the two chambers must hash out a farm bill by the end of September or policy will revert to a 1949 law that could lead to steep price increases on everyday items such as milk.
House leaders and their aides conceded Thursday that they were so consumed by simply passing the pared-down bill that they haven’t figured out what to do next.
Asked before the passage of the House bill how he would approach negotiations with the Senate, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: “If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas. My goal right now is to get the farm bill passed. We’ll get to those issues later.”
The 608-page measure that passed the House includes a package of subsidies for farmers worth about $195 billion over the next 10 years that would make significant changes to agricultural policy and conservation programs, including an end to direct subsidies to farmers. It is nearly identical to that aspect of the Senate bill.
But for the first time since 1973, the House measure says nothing about funding for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was set at about $740 billion.
Farm subsidies and food stamps have long been paired, in part for political reasons. Rural lawmakers backing payments to farmers and urban ones supporting money for food and nutrition programs formed a powerful coalition that served both interests.
House Republicans tried that formula two weeks ago, but the bill was killed after a surprise revolt from conservatives over the cost of the food stamp program. That led to splitting the bill in two, though House leaders have not detailed what they would like to do with the food stamp program, other than to cut it. By how much, when and in what way remain unclear.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he would introduce a separate food stamp bill “as soon as I can achieve a consensus.”
If Congress fails to reach agreement on food stamps, funding will be worked out as part of the normal appropriations process and will probably remain at current levels.
The trimmed-down farm bill pleased rural Republicans, including Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, a fourth-generation farmer, who called the farm-only focus “a positive thing, to make sure that we have good government and good policy and that agriculture is going to be getting the attention it deserves rather than being leveraged by a welfare program.”
But some veteran farm-state Republicans said the move will jeopardize the often difficult talks with the Senate.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close Boehner ally, said that any bill negotiated with the Senate “is going to be a lot different than the one that passes today.”
If a negotiated bill comes up for a vote in the House, Cole said he hopes that “we don’t hear people who voted for this bill complaining that they somehow felt betrayed or were let down. That’s what worries me the most – the acrimony that could come.”
With three weeks remaining before the month-long August recess, House GOP leaders were eager to quickly pass a farm bill and begin talks with the Senate so they can spend the remainder of July voting on bills to repeal the health-care reform law and address recent Obama administration scandals.
GOP leaders rushed late Wednesday to set up Thursday’s vote after determining they had sufficient support to proceed, according to aides familiar with the plans. Unlike in other recent high-stakes votes, aides said that top leaders worked in unison to ensure the bill’s passage. Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., appeared ebullient for most of the day, the result, aides said, of an 11 a.m. meeting that determined they had sufficient support.
At the meeting, aides said, McCarthy singled out Cantor for praise, telling his deputy whips that “the ⅛majority€ leader went back into whip mode this week. It’s been great.”
The vote was a rare defeat for anti-spending groups closely aligned with dozens of the chamber’s most conservative lawmakers.
The Club for Growth said that it agreed with splitting apart farm and food policy but that the new bill was still “loaded down with market-distorting giveaways to special interests with no path established to remove the government’s involvement in the agriculture industry.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., accused Republicans of playing politics with a critical piece of legislation.
“They’re getting heat for now two years in a row of not being able to pass a farm bill,” Hoyer told reporters. “They turned the farm bill – which was a bipartisan bill out of committee – into a very partisan bill. They’ve now made it even more partisan.”
Dozens of liberal lawmakers led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus spent most of the day using procedural tactics to slow down the process.
In one heated exchange, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., rose to admonish GOP lawmakers by saying, “This is a sad day for the House of Representatives. Shame on the Republicans.”
Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., loudly objected to her remarks and asked that they be stricken from the record.
“I will not apologize,” Brown said in response, as GOP aides sought to determine how to proceed.
Brown was permitted to speak again after a few minutes.
“This is a sad day in the House of Representatives,” she said again, adding later: “Mitt Romney was right; you all do not care about the 47 percent. Shame on you!”
At another point, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., mockingly made a parliamentary inquiry, saying he had just obtained a copy of the bill and couldn’t find the part on food stamps. “Is this a printing error?” he asked.
The White House said President Barack Obama would veto the bill if it ever reached his desk and urged lawmakers to work on “a comprehensive approach.”
Negotiations with the Senate on a final version of the legislation are expected to begin in the coming weeks. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the House measure “extremely flawed” and “an insult to rural America,” noting that hundreds of farming, conservation and food aid groups also oppose the legislation.
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Washington Post staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.