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House votes to cut food stamps

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives on Sept. 19 passed a nutrition bill that satisfies conservative demands to cut $39 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years, but it still does not create a clear path toward a conference with the Senate on the farm bill.

Traditionally, the farm bill has included farm and nutrition programs, but the House rejected that bill this year and in July passed a farm-program-only farm bill.

The nutrition bill, which passed on a vote of 217-210, does not contain a measure to merge the two bills, so the conference with the Senate can take place on both sections. The Senate has already passed a comprehensive bill.

This means the House will have to vote on another rule to merge the two bills and ask the Senate for a conference. Whether that could lead to another battle over whether the farm bill and nutrition bill should be recombined is unclear. Conservative groups that want to cut both farm programs and nutrition programs have pushed to keep the two separate. But a House aide also noted that it could be incorporated into a larger rule, which might make such a fight avoidable.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., emphasized in his closing remarks Sept. 19, "Whatever comes out of that conference has to be a comprehensive farm bill. It should not be this hard to pass to make sure that the consumers in this country and around the world have enough to eat. But everything seems so hard these days. Let's go to conference."

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, led the Democratic opposition to the bill and said the debate and vote had been a waste of time, but after the debate she walked across the chamber and shook Lucas's hand, and Lucas hugged her in return.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he believes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will have to reappoint the Senate conferees on the bill.

"After we pass the nutrition bill today, we will send it over to the Senate," Boehner said. "And as I understand it, the Senate probably will have to reappoint conferees. When they ask for a conference, we will appoint our conferees, as well, and the sooner the better."

Asked whether he would name members who are not on the Agriculture Committee as conferees, Boehner said, "We will see."

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he does not think conferees will be appointed until October.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said "The good news is now that this vote is behind us, we are close to the finish line.

"If House Republican leaders drop the divisive issues, appoint conferees and work with us in a bipartisan way, we can finalize a farm bill that creates jobs, reforms agriculture policy, and reduces the deficit by tens of billions of dollars," Stabenow said. "It's time to get a comprehensive farm bill done to give farmers and ranchers the certainty they need to continue growing the economy."

But Stabenow was also highly critical of the House action.

"We have never before seen this kind of partisanship injected into a farm bill. Not only does this House bill represent a shameful attempt to kick millions of families in need off of food assistance, it's also a monumental waste of time. The bill will never pass the Senate, and will never be signed by the president."

If the bill were to become law, 3 million people would lose their food stamp benefits and 800,000 would see their benefits reduced, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

While holding the separate vote on a bill to cut the food stamp program -- officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- was a victory for tea party conservatives, it was seen by many in the agriculture community as a path to conference on the long-delayed farm bill.

All 195 Democrats who voted on the bill voted no, while five did not vote. They were joined by 15 Republicans in opposing the bill.