Speculation is reaching a fever pitch over whether House Republican leadership has the votes to approve a three-year nutrition bill (H.R. 3102) that aims to cut about $40 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Many lawmakers and agricultural stakeholders believe the bill will fall short if the legislation hits the House floor. Others simply acknowledge the vote would be close. The House Rules Committee is scheduled to debate a rule for the bill tonight.

The 109-page bill, which would make several changes to the SNAP program such as ending “categorical eligibility” and allowing states to set work-related requirements to receive benefits, is expected to receive no Democratic votes, and possibly some dissention from rank-and-file Republicans. About 18 Republican lawmakers could swing the bill in either direction.

Some conservative Republicans have expressed criticism that the legislation does not go far enough in cuts or make enough policy changes to steer people away from the program, but they are not expected to oppose the bill. Democrats hope that more moderate Republicans, especially those in poorer districts, will find the cuts too steep.

At a Tuesday press conference, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said she knows several Republicans will vote against the “unconscionable” legislation. House Rules Committee member Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Mass., told reporters a number of Republicans have expressed to him privately that the bill goes too far.

McGovern told Agri-Pulse he is not above accepting “no” votes from Republicans looking for deeper cuts. “I just don’t want poor people to get screwed,” McGovern said.

He noted the bill has not been through regular order, having skipped congressional hearings and markup, and is going straight to the floor. “This has not been thoughtful – it’s been thoughtless,” he said. “This came out of [House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s, R-Va.,] living room.”

Separately, House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., continued his criticism of the leadership’s action on the bill.

“Even if this bill is defeated, as it should be, I worry the debate will eliminate any remaining goodwill needed to pass a farm bill,” Peterson said. “The majority is again catering to the extremes of their party, pushing messaging bills to nowhere. It’s time to get serious. If they will just get out of our way, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees can work together and provide farmers, ranchers and consumers the certainty of a five-year farm bill.”

If the House nutrition bill fails or is pulled, it remains unclear what the next step could involve. House Speaker John Boehner has privately told some sources that –regardless of the vote outcome - he would appoint members to start conferencing the bill with the Senate.

The “Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act” proposes to eliminate “categorical eligibility,” which allows families who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to be automatically eligible for SNAP benefits, according to a summary of the bill. The change aims to save $11.5 billion.

The bill would also eliminate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) “loophole” that critics say allows states to “game the system” by securing more federal taxpayer dollars by sending token LIHEAP checks – some as low as $5 – to increase recipients’ SNAP benefits. The summary said states would be banned from sending LIHEAP payments below $20 for the sole purpose of increasing SNAP benefits. Savings is expected to be $8.7 billion.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said he would guess House leadership does not yet have the votes for passage.

“Otherwise they would have said something publicly about their whip count, or so it would seem,” Hoefner said. “If they don’t have the votes, will they pull the bill? Not sure. Either way, whether they pull it or lose it, it’ll be clear to everyone they didn’t have the votes. I am sure there is still arm-twisting going on.”

Hoefner said that beyond the arguments over the SNAP cuts, the proposed three-year authorization should prompt House Republicans from agricultural districts to oppose the bill because it “dooms chances for passing the farm part of the farm bill in the House the next time out.”

Rachel Sheffield, policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said her organization would like to see a stronger work requirement, similar to that in the 1996 welfare bill. That bill, she said, required states to implement work-related requirements to receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program.

By contrast, the House nutrition bill allows states to conduct pilot projects that adopt TANF work requirements for able-bodied adults to remain eligible for SNAP benefits, with the exception of those with a disability or with sole responsibility of a child under the age of one, or under age six if no child care is available. However, she said, that program is voluntary.

“The House [nutrition] bill is not as strong as the ’96 welfare bill,” Sheffield said. “The work requirement in TANF says they should prepare for work, look for work, but doesn’t require a job.” Still, she said the House nutrition bill would close some loopholes that “have allowed the rolls to expand and refocuses to those really in need.”

Christine Ashley, policy analyst for Bread for the World, said she was personally not convinced House leadership has the votes for the bill, “but we’ll see.”

Ashley said there is “plenty not to like in the bill” and that her organization has been reaching out to about 50 Republicans who voted against an amendment calling for deeper SNAP cuts during the debate on the House’s failed first attempt to approve a farm bill. She said churches and food banks have been pressing lawmakers across the nation to oppose the bill.

“There are churches in every congressional district,” Ashley said, noting that churches and food banks say the changes would mean they would have to double their food assistance to the public.

“It’s all pretty bad,” she said. “The policy changes will affect the childless, low income families, and as a whole will affect the most vulnerable.”


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