Tuesday afternoon marked the beginning of the general floor debate for the 2013 House farm bill, which includes $20.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as the food stamps program. If the bill passes later this week, nearly two million people could lose food stamp eligibility, and as many as 210,000 children could lose free school meals.
The bill was recommended to the floor from the House Agriculture Committee last month with broad bipartisan approval. In a statement issued before the floor debate, the White House called such deep food stamp cuts "unacceptable" and threatened a presidential veto.
Should the bill pass, it will go into conference committee to be reconciled with the Senate farm bill. That piece of legislation, which was passed last week, mandates only $4.1 billion in cuts to food stamps, though it also includes an amendment which would bar those convicted of certain violent crimes from SNAP eligibility.
The farm bill is a piece of omnibus legislation which provides funds, regulations and subsidies for a variety of programs and industries related to agriculture and food production. Though a farm bill is generally signed into law once every five years, Congress failed to pass such legislation last year, instead extending the 2008 law. During floor debate, representatives from both sides of the aisle emphasized the importance of passing a new five-year plan instead of resorting to another an extension.
"It's time to act on a bill that, although imperfect, should have been adopted a year ago," said Rep. William Enyart, an Illinois Democrat.
Many Democrats said they were disappointed with the cuts to food stamps, but urged their colleagues to support the law anyway.
"I didn't get everything I wanted, [House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas] didn't get everything he wanted, but that's the way the legislative is supposed to work," said Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
"I do not like the cuts to nutrition, but I do understand this is a process," said Texas GOP Rep. Henry Cuellar. He suggested that the cuts to food stamps could be reduced in conference.
But a handful of Democrats, including minority whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, see the SNAP cuts as a deal breaker.
"It's not worthy of our country," he said. "It's not worthy of the morals of this nation."
Republicans who addressed the food stamp cuts denied that they would make it more difficult for the needy to feed themselves. Texas Rep. Randy Neugebauer said that claim was "simply not true," while his fellow party members suggested that the cuts would only eliminate fraud and abuse.
By passing the farm bill, the House would be "eliminating abuse in the food stamp program," said Rep. Rick Crawford, Arkansas Republican.