House Republicans revived their farm bill and its expanded work rules for food stamp recipients by narrowly passing the legislation with the help of conservatives who had used the measure as leverage to get the House to act on immigration policy.
The farm bill, which is unchanged from the version that failed May 18, narrowly passed Thursday afternoon, 213-211, with no support from Democrats, who continued to denounce the GOP reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as cruel and unworkable.
The key was that just 20 Republicans voted against the bill this time, versus 30 in May. The Republicans who switched from no to yes on the bill included the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and the group's former chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio.
House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he was worried about the bill's fate "right up until the time they gaveled down at 213-211."
The bill was defeated last month 198-213 after conservatives demanded that the House first take up an immigration bill they wanted considered. That immigration bill was debated, and defeated, in a vote earlier Thursday, clearing the way for the farm bill to be reconsidered.
Passing the House farm bill clears the way for House and Senate negotiations to begin as soon as July on a final version of the legislation, so long as the Senate goes forward with plans to debate its version of the bill next week.
"For both chambers to have gotten their farm bills individually done before July 1 is a pretty terrific task that a lot of folks who have bet the other way on. I'm just proud to get ours across the House floor and anxious to get to conference when Pat gets his bill done," Conaway said, referring to Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, quickly left the Capitol after the vote, declining to discuss the outcome with a reporter and saying only, "It passed."
The SNAP work rules are a top priority for House Speaker Paul Ryan, although their future beyond the House is in doubt.
“This is a perfect time to pull people out of poverty, into the workforce, onto the ladder of opportunity,” Ryan said ahead of Thursday’s vote.
“We see this as a great moment to get the folks who have been marginalized in this society, who have been on the sidelines, on to a life of self-sufficiency, to advancement.”
President Donald Trump noted the passage of the farm bill by the House on his Twitter account. “So happy to see work requirements included,” he tweeted. “Big win for farmers.”
The SNAP reforms are the biggest difference by far between the two bills. The House measure would require able-bodied adults from 18 to 60, including parents with children over age 6, to work at least 20 hours a week, and the legislation strictly limits SNAP eligibility to people with incomes that are no more than 30 percent above the federal poverty level. Under current law, people in some states can qualify with incomes up to twice the poverty level.
The Senate bill, which the Senate Agriculture Committee approved last week 20-1, contains neither of those provisions.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue applauded Conaway and the House Ag Committee “for their diligence and hard work” in getting the legislation passed in the House.
“American producers have greatly benefited from the policies of the Trump administration, including tax reforms and reductions in regulations,” Perdue said. “However a farm bill is still critically important to give the agriculture community some much-needed reassurance. No doubt, there is still much work to be done on this legislation in both chambers of Congress, and USDA stands ready to assist with whatever counsel lawmakers may request or require.”
Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who back the expanded work rules, acknowledged Thursday that they had no commitment from the House GOP leadership to insist that they be included in the final version of the bill that will be worked out with the Senate. “Unfortunately, we don’t,” said Jordan, the former Freedom Caucus chairman.
Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, is looking for Trump to insist the bill beef up SNAP work rules. “I hope the president sends the message. if you can’t get work requirements, I’m not going to be able to sign it," said Davidson, who also switched his vote from May to support the bill on Thursday.
Other HFC members who switched their votes from May included Dave Brat of Virginia, Andy Harris of Maryland and Randy Weber of Texas. Three HFC members who didn't vote in May voted for the bill this time: Ken Buck of Colorado, Louis Gohmert of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho.
The White House endorsed the House farm bill in May, saying it would provide certainty to farmers while imposing “common-sense work requirements” on SNAP recipients.
There are other significant differences between the House and Senate bills, but farm bill veterans say they will be easier to reconcile.
The House bill, for example, would raise the acreage limit on the Conservation Reserve Program from 24 million to 29 million acres and eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program. The Senate bill would raise the CRP cap to 25 million acres and preserve but cut CSP.
Both bills would leave the major commodity support programs for grain, cotton and oilseeds largely intact, the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, but the bills differ on payment eligibility rules.
The Senate bill also would maintain current funding levels for farm bill energy programs. The House bill would eliminate the energy title that is in the 2014 farm bill and leave energy programs without mandatory funding.
The Senate also would provide $200 million in additional funding for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, which would get no new money under the House bill.
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