WASHINGTON – Amid angry outbursts, the Republican-run House on Thursday passed a farm bill that would break a decades-old bond between the country's farm and nutrition programs.
By a 216-208 margin that included not a single Democratic yes vote, the GOP passed a five-year farm bill that does not include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
Rep. Tim Walz, whose congressional district spans a heavily agricultural southern swath of Minnesota, called the bill an "abomination." Walz, a Democratic member of the House Agriculture Committee, read names from a list of more than 530 farm, conservation and rural development organizations that opposed the legislation.
While 12 Republicans voted against splitting food stamps from the farm bill, all three of Minnesota's Republican representatives sided with their party leaders.
"I don't understand the no votes, because whether you like it or not, you've got to have farm policy, and you've got to move the process forward," Republican Rep. John Kline said in an interview.
The food stamp program is protected by law, so it would take specific legislation to kill it. But the program's supporters saw its separation from the farm bill as a first step toward big cuts.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee, helped fashion a bipartisan farm bill that was voted down two weeks ago. Peterson led the opposition Thursday, chiding GOP leaders for orchestrating what he called the most divisive political move of his nearly 40 years in politics.
"You have made me a partisan," Peterson, an avowed moderate, told his Republican colleagues. "That's a hard thing to do."
Farmers in Minnesota who were upset when the House voted down a farm bill in late June over the issue of food stamp cuts were equally frustrated with the passage of Thursday's bill, since it likely cannot pass the Senate and would face a veto by President Obama if it did.
"This decision to end a marriage between nutrition and farming comes after the Senate passed a bipartisan bill," said Kevin Paap, a soybean farmer in Blue Earth County. "That marriage worked for decades. I don't think we needed a divorce."
Paap, who serves as president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, worried that the House action would undermine the agriculture community's main goal: To have a farm bill signed into law by the end of the year.
The farm bill is already a year overdue because House leaders would not bring a bill passed by the Agriculture Committee to a vote in 2012.
The bill that failed two weeks ago included supplemental nutrition assistance but cut the program by $20.5 billion over five years. The bill failed because conservatives like Sixth District Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann wanted more cuts to food stamps and liberals like Fifth District Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison wanted fewer cuts.
"I am pleased that food stamps have been separated from agriculture programs so that we can address farm policy in a stand-alone bill," Bachmann said in a statement.
Ellison was not pleased.
"Things have gotten more interesting, and not in a good way," he said.
Rep. Erik Paulsen, the Minnesota delegation's third Republican, explained his vote for the bill saying, "It includes important reforms like repealing direct subsidies and streamlining programs that will save taxpayers millions and help farmers plan for the future."
Peterson predicted a harsh reception for the House bill in any Senate-House conference committee formed to work out differences. The Senate farm bill includes tens of billions of dollars in supplemental food assistance to help feed 46 million poor Americans.
In a statement, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the House bill "fails to bring together the broad coalition of farm, food and conservation groups'' that is needed.
The mood in the House chamber Thursday ranged from tense to ugly, with Republicans arguing that a farm bill free of the food stamp program was the only one that could pass and Democrats accusing the GOP of turning its back on the nation's hungry.
A sense of partisan anger seemed to hang over the representatives until the Republicans finally had their way.
Asked later about the inability to work together, Peterson replied, "This is no different than we've looked for the last few months. That's why everybody hates us."
Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this report.