House Democrats are setting the stage for a possible court battle with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue over his plan to make it harder for states to get waivers from food stamp work requirements. 

A package of new rules that must be approved by the full House after Democrats assume control of the chamber on Thursday includes a provision directing the House’s Office of General Counsel to “explore all possible legal options for responding” to new requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

The issue is a personal priority for the incoming chairman of the House Rules Committee, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, a fierce critic of efforts by Perdue and House Republicans to tighten SNAP work rules. McGovern was the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee’s nutrition subcommittee in the past Congress. 

“I stood on the House floor and promised the president that Democrats would use every tool at our disposal to prevent this administration’s assault on the poor,” McGovern said. 

“We will not stand by and watch this administration circumvent the will of Congress and undo the bipartisan 2018 farm bill. We are holding this administration accountable on day one.” 

Perdue released the proposed rule on SNAP waivers on Dec. 20, the same day that President Donald Trump signed the farm bill into law. The Senate and House didn’t reach agreement on the legislation until House Republicans dropped their demands for provisions in the bill to tighten SNAP work rules. 

USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh declined to comment on the prospect of legal intervention by House Democrats. “We can’t respond to proposed or possible litigation,” he said. 

But he defended the USDA plan to tighten the waivers, arguing that the widespread exemptions had undermined the intent of the work requirements enacted in 1996. The proposed SNAP rule "simply requires that able-bodied adults without dependents work 20 hours a week for their benefits. In times of low unemployment, it is reasonable to expect people to be entering the workforce. This is not aimed at pregnant women, the disabled, or the elderly," he said.

Perdue unsuccessfully appealed to the farm bill negotiators to write the tougher waiver requirements into the farm bill, but House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, resisted Senate efforts to include language restricting Perdue's ability to change the waiver rules. 

Under the 1996 welfare law, ABAWDs who want SNAP benefits can be out of work only three months of every three years unless they live in a state or region exempted by USDA. For 2018, Alaska, Louisiana, Nevada and New Mexico had statewide waivers from the time limit, and 29 other states had exemptions for individual areas, including 1,080 counties, Indian reservations, cities or townships.

The biggest change in the proposed rule would prevent states or areas of states from getting waivers unless their unemployment rate is at least 7 percent. That restriction, coupled with additional changes, would reduce the areas that qualify for waivers by about 75 percent, saving taxpayers $15 billion over 10 years, according to USDA.

A second provision in the package of House Democratic rules would authorize the incoming speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to intervene in a case where a Texas federal judge ruled that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

Some new Democrats are expected to vote against the rules because they also include a pay-as-you-go requirement allowing a point of order against any measure that would increase the deficit for up to 10 years. 

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