WASHINGTON — House Republicans narrowly pushed through a bill Thursday that slashes billions of dollars from the food stamp program, over the objections of Democrats and a veto threat from President Barack Obama.
The vote set up what promised to be a major clash with the Senate and dashed hopes for passage this year of a new five-year farm bill.
The vote was 217-210, largely along party lines.
Republican leaders, under pressure from Tea Party-backed conservatives, said the bill was needed because the food stamp program, which costs nearly $80 billion a year, had grown out of control. They said the program had expanded even as jobless rates had declined with the easing recession.
“This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who led efforts to split the food stamps program from the overall farm bill. “In the real world, we measure success by results. It’s time for Washington to measure success by how many families are lifted out of poverty and helped back on their feet, not by how much Washington bureaucrats spend year after year.”
Even with the cuts, however, the food stamp program would cost more than $700 billion over the next 10 years.
Republicans invoked former President Bill Clinton in their defense of the bill, saying that the changes were in the spirit of those that he signed into law in 1996 that set work requirements for those who receive welfare.
But Democrats, many of whom held up pictures of people they said would lose their benefits, called the cuts draconian and said they would plunge millions into poverty.
“It’s a sad day in the people’s House when the leadership brings to the floor one of the most heartless bills I have ever seen,” said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass. “It’s terrible policy trapped in a terrible process.”
The measure has little chance of advancing in the Senate, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, called it “a monumental waste of time.”
The bill, written under the direction of the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, R-Va., would cut $40 billion from the food stamp program over the next 10 years. It would also require adults between ages 18 and 50 without minor children to find a job or to enroll in a work-training program in order to receive benefits.
It would also limit the time those recipients could get benefits to three months. Currently, states can extend food stamp benefits past three months for able-bodied people who are working or preparing for work as part of a job-training program.
“This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs,” House Speaker John A. Boehner said.
The bill would also restrict people enrolled in other social welfare programs from automatically becoming eligible for food stamps.
In addition, the legislation would allow states to require food stamp recipients to be tested for drugs and to stop lottery winners from getting benefits. The Senate farm bill also contains a restriction on lottery winners.
Critics of the measure said the cuts would fall disproportionately on children.
“Yes, the federal government has budget problems, but children didn’t cause them, and cutting anti-hunger investments is the wrong way to solve them,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus Campaign for Children, a child advocacy group.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly 4 million people would be removed from the food stamp program under the House bill starting next year. The budget office said after that, about 3 million a year would be cut off from the program.
The budget office said that, left unchanged, the number of food stamp recipients would decline by about 14 million people - or 30 percent - over the next 10 years as the economy improves. A Census Bureau report released Tuesday found that the program had kept about 4 million people above the poverty level and had prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty. The census data also showed nearly 47 million people living in poverty - close to the highest level in two decades.
Historically, the food stamp program has been part of the farm bill, a huge piece of legislation that had routinely been passed every five years, authorizing financing for the nation’s farm and nutrition programs. But in July, House leaders split the bill’s farm and nutrition sections into separate measures, passing the farm legislation over Democrats’ objections.
The move came after the House rejected a proposed farm bill that would have cut $20 billion from the food stamp program. Conservative lawmakers helped kill the bill, saying the program needed deeper cuts.