Food stamp fight divides Republicans

Published 9:29 am Friday, September 20, 2013

By Brett Neely
Minnesota Public Radio News

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House plans to vote today on a bill that cuts food stamps by nearly $40 billion over 10 years, a move that would eliminate benefits for 40,000 Minnesotans.

Food stamp funding has long been part of the farm bill, but after a disagreement over food stamp cuts sank a version of the farm bill, House Republicans in June decided to vote on the issue separately.

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The House subsequently approved a scaled-down farm bill without food stamps in July. It now must be reconciled with the Senate bill, which cuts food stamps by $4 billion.

Republicans are clearly divided on the issue. Some want bigger cuts and some won’t support the $40 billion reduction.

None of Minnesota’s three House Republicans responded to requests about whether they favor the proposed level of cuts.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents the 1st District, said his party is united in opposing the latest bill but hasn’t been able to have any role in crafting a compromise.

“This is internal, inside-the-Beltway politics on the Republican side, a sort of fighting for the soul of the Republican Party,” Walz said. “We’re just kind of left as bystanders at this point.”

The dean of Minnesota’s House delegation, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, is deeply immersed in this food stamp fight.

As the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson helped draft the initial farm bill that had $20 billion in cuts — a number he reluctantly went along with.

This time, Peterson said he won’t support the cuts.

“The most helpful outcome would be if it didn’t pass,” said Peterson, who represents the 7th District.

Peterson said House Speaker John Boehner has promised to appoint negotiators for a House and Senate conference committee even if this food stamp bill doesn’t pass.

The House vote on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the first in a series of controversial votes coming up in the next few weeks as Congress begins to grapple with the budget — a process has the potential to lead to a federal government shutdown. It pits Democrats against Republicans — and Republicans against each other.

Democrats point to the weak job market and say government food assistance is desperately needed to keep 46 million Americans from going hungry.

Republicans say spending on the $74 billion program has more than doubled since 2008 and that it is rife with fraud.

The GOP’s initial proposal to cut $20 billion from food stamps over the next decade was shot down by conservatives who wanted even deeper cuts.

The new Republican bill under debate will make it harder for people to qualify for food stamps.

“The provisions are harsh,” said Ed Bolen, a senior research associate for the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

The center estimates that about seven percent of Minnesota’s food-stamp recipients would be cut from the program. Nationwide, nearly 4 million people would lose benefits, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Bolen said the GOP bill would limit single, able-bodied adults who aren’t working to three months on food stamps.

Minnesota is one of many states with waivers that let those adults receive food stamps with no time limit because the unemployment rate is still high. The state’s unemployment rate is 5.2 percent.

If the bill becomes law, that will no longer be possible.

“States would have to impose this three-month time limit no matter how tough the job circumstances are for childless adults,” Bolen said.

Analysts and advocates for people who need food stamps say the bill could make life difficult for the very poor, but few expect it to become law because the Democratic-controlled Senate is almost certain to reject it.

Passing the legislation would set up the opportunity for the House and Senate to negotiate a broader farm bill deal with fewer cuts to food stamps, said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

“We understand D.C. enough that sometimes you have to do weird things to get to the place you want to be,” said Paap, who wants a five-year farm bill finished.

For that reason, the conservative groups that helped split the House farm bill in two aren’t celebrating the food stamp bill.

“Well the content, strangely, is not relevant here because even if it was fantastic policy, the leadership has already communicated that it has no intention of fighting for it,” said Andrew Roth, vice president for government affairs at the Club for Growth, influential among GOP lawmakers.

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