The new Congress rekindled a dispute left over from last year’s farm bill debate as House Republicans sought to protect USDA’s move to tighten work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

The House, now under control of Democrats, elected Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as speaker Thursday afternoon and immediately began debating a Democratic proposal to end the government shutdown and a separate package of rules that would, among other things, authorize Pelosi to go to court to block USDA’s SNAP plan.

A proposed rule issued by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Dec. 20, the same day that President Donald Trump signed the farm bill into law, would make it harder for states to get waivers from the SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. 

Speaking on the House floor Thursday, Rep. Mike Conaway, now the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, argued states have been abusing the waiver process and shielding too many able-bodied SNAP recipients from the work standard, which is to be employed or in training at least 20 hours a week. 

“Until last September, the entire state of California was under a work wavier, and we’ve yet got a 4 percent unemployment rate across this nation. It makes no sense,” Conaway, R-Texas, said.

The ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., asserted the rules provision was "hopelessly vague and represents a blanket grant of authority to simply do something without saying what.”

But the new chairman of the Rules Committee, Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said the provision in the rules package was intended to send a message to the Perdue and the Trump administration: “If in fact he or this administration go after poor people, if they try to take away their food, we are coming after them. We are going to hold them accountable,” said McGovern. 

With Democrats now in control of the House, Republicans were powerless to kill the rules package, which  was adopted on a near party-line vote, 234-197. 

Democrats have not said what legal avenue they will pursue on the SNAP rule, but it could include filing suit against the department or intervening in support of another lawsuit. 

There is still no end in sight to the government shutdown, which has halted work at USDA on implementing the new farm bill and suspended processing of applications for the Market Facilitation Program, which provides payments to farmers harmed by the ongoing trade wars. 

House Democrats introduced a package of six spending bills that would fund USDA and other shuttered departments and agencies through Sept. 30, while leaving the Department of Homeland Security funded only into February and without the border wall funding Trump has demanded. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has already said the Senate wouldn’t take up a funding measure that didn’t have Trump’s support. 

In her first remarks to the House after returning to the speakership after an eight-year absence, Pelosi said the Democratic spending measure was intended to “meet the needs of the American people, to protect our borders, and to respect our workers.”

She also made clear that climate policy would be a major priority for House Democrats. “The American people understand the urgency. The people are ahead of the Congress. The Congress must join them,” she said. 

The rules package would authorize creation of a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to hold hearings on the issue and to make recommendations to permanent committees. 

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