WASHINGTON — The House rejected a five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill Thursday that would have cut $2 billion annually from food stamps and let states impose broad new work requirements on those who receive them.
Those cuts weren't deep enough for many Republicans who objected to the cost of the nearly $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, which has doubled in the past five years. The vote was 234-195 against the bill, with 62 Republicans voting against itU.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., voted in favor of the bill. In a news release issued Thursday afternoon, he described it as an effort to save taxpayers money.
"Unchecked, the status quo will bankrupt our country and doom our children and grandchildren to a life indebted to China," said Kingston. "I voted for this bill because it was the first effort to significantly reform food stamps in nearly two decades and would save taxpayers more than $40 billion."
During debate, Kingston said, the House adopted an amendment he co-sponsored that would have institute a work requirement for food stamp recipients similar to the welfare reforms of the 1990s. As a result of those efforts, he said, welfare caseloads dropped by more than 60-percent over five years and 4.2 million Americans rose out of poverty.
"We cannot continue to deny able-bodied people the dignity of work," Kingston said. "Our amendment says that if you can work, you ought to be working so that you can get off these programs. It builds on the success of the past and ensures food stamps are a hand up instead of a hand out."
The bill also suffered from lack of Democratic support necessary for the traditionally bipartisan farm bill to pass. Only 24 Democrats voted in favor of the legislation after many said the food stamp cuts could remove as many as 2 million needy recipients from the rolls. The addition of the optional state work requirements by Republican amendment just before final passage turned away many remaining Democratic votes.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and No. 2 Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland, both of whom voted for the bill, immediately took to the House floor and blamed the other's party for the defeat.
Cantor said it was a "disappointing day" and that Democrats had been a "disappointing player."
Hoyer suggested that Republicans voted for the food stamp work requirements to tank the bill.
"What happened today is you turned a bipartisan bill, necessary for our farmers, necessary for our consumers, necessary for the people of America, that many of us would have supported, and you turned it into a partisan bill," he said.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed its version of the farm bill last week, with about $2.4 billion a year in overall cuts and a $400 million annual decrease in food stamps — one-fifth of the House bill's food stamp cuts. The White House was supportive of the Senate version but had issued a veto threat of the House bill.
If the two chambers cannot come together on a bill, farm-state lawmakers could push for an extension of the 2008 farm bill that expires in September or negotiate a new bill with the Senate and try again.
Some conservatives have suggested separating the farm programs and the food stamps into separate bills. Farm-state lawmakers have for decades added food stamps to farm bills to garner urban votes for the rural bill. But that marriage has made passage harder this year.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said Thursday that the committee is assessing all its options and will continue its work in the "near future."
Just before the vote, Lucas pleaded with his colleagues' support, saying that if the measure didn't pass people would use it as an example of a dysfunctional Congress.
"If it fails today I can't guarantee you'll see in this Congress another attempt," he said.
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said he believes the work requirements and a vote that scuttled a proposed dairy overhaul turned too many lawmakers against the measure.
"I had a bunch of people come up to me and say I was with you but this is it, I'm done," Peterson said after the vote.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, voted for the bill but lobbied for the dairy amendment that caused some dairy-state lawmakers to eventually turn on the legislation. Cantor vocally supported the amendment that imposed the work requirements, coming to the House floor just before that vote and the final vote to endorse it.
Though passage has been in the balance all week, the vote against the bill was larger than many expected. When the final vote count was read, House Democrats cheered loudly, led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus who had fought the food stamp cuts.
The defeat is also a major victory for conservative taxpayer groups and environmental groups who have unsuccessfully worked against the bill for years. Those groups have aggressively lobbied lawmakers in recent weeks, hoping to capitalize on the more than 200 new members of the House since the last farm bill passed five years ago. Many of those new members are conservative Republicans who replaced moderate rural Democrats who had championed farm policy.
Those groups were emboldened after the vote.
"We need to put farm subsidies on a path to elimination and we need to devolve food stamps to the state level where they belong," said Chris Chocola, president of the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth.
Associated Press writers Jim Abrams, Alan Fram and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.