Farm Bill Passes House as Critics Slam Food-Stamp Work Rules

(Bloomberg) -- Farm legislation that would impose new work restrictions to qualify for food stamps narrowly passed the U.S. House after an earlier attempt failed last month because of conservatives’ demands that an immigration vote be held first.

The five-year, $867 billion bill, passed 213-211 on Thursday, would extend subsidies for farmers and government-backed crop insurers, and impose new requirements on the government’s biggest food-assistance program.

Republicans said the work requirements are needed to move food stamp recipients into the labor force at a time of worker shortages. Democrats rejected those provisions because they said they’ll reduce benefits and increase paperwork without effectively moving people into jobs.

The Senate is considering a different version of farm legislation that wouldn’t impose broad new work requirements for those who receive subsidies under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. If that version ultimately wins Senate approval, lawmakers would need to reconcile the two bills. Current farm programs begin to expire Sept. 30.

“If history is any indication, we will not be done by Sept. 30 with the farm bill,” said Senator Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas and a member of that chamber’s agriculture appropriations subcommittee, at a Bloomberg Government event earlier in the day.

The first attempt to pass the farm legislation failed last month, an embarrassing blow to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is being pressured by multiple Republican factions as the party is trying to defend its majority in the November congressional elections.

Conservatives withheld support for the House farm bill last month, insisting on first holding a floor vote on conservative immigration legislation they’ve been seeking. That bill was rejected in a vote earlier Thursday. With the immigration pledge fulfilled, supporters gained enough Republican votes to push the farm bill through.

The House farm legislation, H.R. 2, would shift some food stamp money from benefits to workforce training, while increasing the number of people required to comply with work requirements.

The House Agriculture Committee’s top Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said the legislation "worsens hunger and it fails rural communities. The only upside to its passage is that we’re one step closer to conference, where it’s my hope that cooler heads can and will prevail."

With Democrats holding more power in the almost evenly divided Senate, that chamber’s Agriculture Committee is leaving food stamps largely alone. But inaction on work requirements could also kill the farm bill’s chances of either House passage or approval by President Donald Trump, who has said he wants stringent work requirements. Trump tweeted Thursday that he’s “so happy to see work requirements included.”

Senate Agriculture Chairman Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, has said his chamber will back a bipartisan plan. That panel last week sent its package to the Senate floor with a 20-1 vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said that plan may get a vote before the July 4 congressional recess.

"Our farmers and ranchers need certainty and predictability," Roberts said in a statement after House passage. "They are counting on us."

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