The Republican-led House on Thursday narrowly passed legislation that calls for broad spending cuts and tighter eligibility restrictions to the nation's food stamp program, as Democrats complained the measure would kick millions of needy Americans off its rolls and deeper into poverty.
The GOP-crafted bill, which cleared by a vote of 217-210, would cut $40 billion over 10 years -- about 5 percent -- to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.
It also would close what Republicans call "loopholes" that allow states to offer benefits to some individuals and families above the program's income limits. And it gives states greater flexibility in requiring able-bodied parents to take part in work and job training as a condition for receiving aid.
"The reforms made by this bill will put people on the path to self-sufficiency and independence," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who spearheaded the measure.
No Democrats voted for the bill, and 15 Republicans crossed party lines to oppose it.
The bill will go nowhere in Democratic-controlled Senate, which earlier this year approved food stamp reforms that included about a tenth of the spending cuts found in the House measure. The wide discrepancy sets up what is expected to be a testy standoff between the two chambers.
"In the richest country in the world, one in six people are in danger of going to bed hungry tonight. And half of those people are children," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "But despite these sobering numbers - and despite the difficult economic times - House Republicans ... are determined to gut the nutrition assistance program.”
The House cuts are double what the chamber's GOP called for two months ago in a failed farm bill. Cantor proposed the deeper spending reductions after conservatives in his ranks complained the initial bill's cuts didn't go far enough.
Republicans say the cuts are warranted because food stamp spending has swelled to $80 billion in 2012 from $35 billion in 2007. And with one in seven Americans — about 48 million — now receiving government food subsidies, conservatives say spending has been inflated by freeloaders and by states that have expanded the program's rolls to undeserving recipients.
But Democrats say the sluggish economy and high unemployment — not fraudsters or those too lazy to find work — are the main reasons for the record high number of Americans receiving food stamps.
Democrats also point to a Congressional Budget Office estimate that shows up to 3.8 million people would lose their food stamp benefits in 2014 if the bill became law. That includes about 1.7 million able-bodied adults, who would be subject to more strict work requirements after three months. The other 2.1 million would lose benefits though the elimination of so-called categorical eligibility, a method used by many states that allows people to automatically qualify for food stamps if they already receive other benefits.
"What is happening this week in the House of Representatives isn’t about reality. It’s about fiction – an idea that if the stock market is doing well, if wealthy members of Congress are doing well, then surely everyone in America must be doing well too," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate agriculture committee.
Cantor accused the bill's critics of spreading "demagoguery" and "lot of misinformation," saying that no one who qualifies for food stamps and meets the bill's work requirements will be denied benefits.
"This bill is a bill that points to the dignity of a job – to help people when they need it most with what they want most, which is a job," he said.
Thursday's action means the two chambers finally are free to negotiate a compromise between their competing bills, a process House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, put on hold until after the food stamp vote. Food stamp funding likely will be folded into the larger farmers' aid bill, as has been tradition since the 1970s.
Still, House negotiators will face strong pressure from Tea Party-backed members and influential outside conservative groups to keep as many of their bill's food stamp cuts and restrictions in place as possible -- a move Democrats say could indefinitely delay passage of a new farm bill.
“I’ve been working on this farm bill for nearly four years and from the beginning I’ve said that I think it is possible to find some middle ground and make reasonable, responsible reforms to nutrition programs. Unfortunately, this bill is neither reasonable nor responsible," say Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
“All this bill is going to do is make it harder, if not impossible, to pass a new farm bill this Congress."