House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway is delaying the planned debate of a new farm bill to negotiate changes in its nutrition title that could win some Democratic support.
Democrats have rebelled at provisions in the draft bill that would increase the number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients subject to work requirements and use the savings from reducing enrollment to expand state employment and training programs.
Conaway, R-Texas, said he had a “great meeting” on Tuesday with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, and some experts on welfare issues. Conaway had planned to release the draft bill this week ahead of a committee markup next week but he said that committee action before the two-week Easter recess was now "very doubtful."
“What I don’t want to do is be in those negotiations, put something out, and then have to change it (the draft bill). I’d rather make the deal with Peterson to get him to a ‘yes. That’s when we’ll put it out,” Conaway told reporters.
Peterson has said the bill would push 8 million people from SNAP rolls, but Conaway said “we don’t think there’s anywhere near that many people” who would leave the program.
Conaway likely needs Democratic votes on the House floor to offset losses from Republicans who object to other provisions of the farm bill.
Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee said the SNAP provisions are dead in that chamber, where Democratic support will be needed to get the 60 votes necessary to pass a farm bill.
“We’ll do some things that will address the SNAP program and hopefully make it more directed to those who truly need it, but we won’t dramatically change the program,” said the committee’s chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
The top Democrat on the committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said the House bill’s changes were unwarranted. “We’ll write our own bill. Sen. Roberts and I work together well, and we know we don’t get things done unless it’s a bipartisan bill.”
One of the more moderate Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, California Rep. Jimmy Panetta, said he was keeping an open mind until he sees the bill text, but he indicated he might oppose increased spending on employment and training programs if it’s funded through reducing SNAP enrollment.
“We have to see if it’s a tradeoff of cutting certain SNAP benefits and pushing certain other people off. It’s how it’s done,” Panetta said.
He said he believes Conaway will “work hard to make sure” the farm bill has bipartisan support.
Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, a Democrat, said the bill’s provision risk driving away both Republicans and Democrats. “I don’t think most members of Congress are interested in going this way,” he said.
Glickman agrees with anti-hunger groups who believe the employment and training programs funded through USDA have been largely ineffective. "If I could see job training programs in the community college system that really worked that may make some sense, but it's not happening. It just means that more people will be hurt in the process," Glickman said.
The 2014 farm bill authorized a series of pilot projects to test approaches to improving the E&T programs, but the projects are still ongoing. Some of the projects have run into problems with staff turnover and loss of participation, according to USDA's latest interim report. As of Sept. 30, more than 34,000 people were enrolled in the 10 projects, with about half of pilot participants randomly assigned to a treatment group and half assigned to a control group.
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