The House voted Thursday to cut nearly $4 billion a year from food stamps, a 5 percent reduction to the nation’s main feeding program used by more than 1 in 7 Americans.
The 217-210 vote was a win for conservatives after Democrats united in opposition and some GOP moderates said the cut was too high.
The bill’s savings would be achieved by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs.
The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
The House vote sets up a battle with the Senate and the White House. The Democratic Senate has opposed any major cuts, and that chamber passed a farm bill in June that had around a tenth of the cuts in the House bill, or around $400 million a year. President Barack Obama has also opposed cuts that go beyond the Senate bill.
House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the almost $80 billion-a-year program has become bloated.
More than 47 million Americans are now on food stamps, and the program’s cost more than doubled in the last five years as the economy struggled through the recession. Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed the program was doing its job.
The Congressional Budget Office has said that if the bill became law, as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014.
Around 1.7 million of those would be the able-bodied adults who would be subject to work requirements after three months of receiving food stamps. The 1996 welfare law put that limit into law, but most every state has been allowed to waive that requirement since the recession began in 2008.
The other 2.1 million would lose benefits because the bill would largely eliminate so-called categorical eligibility, a method used by many states that allows people to automatically qualify for food stamps if they already receive other benefits. Some of those people who qualify that way do not meet current income and asset tests for food stamps.
Finding a compromise — and the votes — to scale back the feeding program has been difficult.
The conservatives have insisted on larger cuts, Democrats opposed any cuts and some moderate Republicans from areas with high food stamp usage have been wary of efforts to cut the program.
Republican leaders emphasized that the bill targets able-bodied adults who don’t have dependents. And they say the broader work requirements in the bill are similar to the 1996 welfare law that led to a decline in people receiving that government assistance.
“This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most,” Cantor said on the floor just before the bill passed. “And most people don’t choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job … They want what we want.”
The new work requirements proposed in the bill would allow states to require 20 hours of work activities per week from any able-bodied adult with a child over age 1 if that person has child care available. The requirements would be applicable to all parents whose children are over age 6 and attending school.
The legislation is the House’s effort to finish work on its version of the farm bill, which has historically included both farm programs and food stamps. The House Agriculture Committee approved a combined bill earlier this year, but it was defeated on the floor in June after conservatives revolted, saying the cuts to food stamps weren’t high enough. That bill included around $2 billion in cuts annually.
After the farm bill defeat, Republican leaders split the legislation in two and passed a bill in July that included only farm programs. They promised the food stamp bill would come later, with deeper cuts.
Every single Democrat voting on Thursday opposed the bill. Many took to the floor with emotional appeals.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bill is a “full assault on the health and economic security of millions of families.” Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett called it the “let them starve” bill.
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