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WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives stumbled over a divisive plan to cut food stamps and failed Thursday to pass a five-year farm bill.
The 234-195 defeat of the bill leaves the government scrambling for a long-term program to govern dozens of nutrition and agriculture programs. The 2008 farm bill, which expired last year, had to be extended through this year because the House failed to vote on an updated version in 2012.
Thursday’s defeat stunned Minnesota farmers and had them wondering about critical policies that protect their businesses.
“We’re terribly disappointed to get this far down the road and have the bill voted down,” Kittson County farmer Kelly Erickson said. “That’s not the outcome we were expecting. I don’t know what it means or where it goes. There’s uncertainty in the commodity [rules] and crop insurance we rely on to survive.”
The uncertainty also led to a new round of political rancor, with Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for Congress’ continuing inability to pass major farm legislation, which had not been a partisan issue in the past.
Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, a top player in the end-game of negotiations, said the defeat came about “because the House Republicans could not control the extreme right wing of their party.”
Opposition to the bill, however, was bipartisan, with 172 Democrats joining 62 Republicans in voting against the bill. Democrats mainly objected to cuts to nutrition programs, which make up the bulk of the bill.
Republican critics, including Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, complained that too much of the farm bill, almost $1 trillion over five years, would have gone to the food stamp program.
Peterson, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, had predicted that the House’s Republican leadership would not bring the bill to a vote unless it had the support to pass.
“From Day 1, I cautioned my colleagues that to pass a farm bill we would have to work together,” Peterson said soon after the vote. “Instead, the House adopted a partisan amendment process, playing political games with extreme policies that have no chance of becoming law.”
Republicans fired back in an internal whip report obtained by the Star Tribune that blamed Peterson for not delivering the Democratic votes he promised.
“House Democrats promised 40 votes on final passage ...,” the report said. “This afternoon, Ranking Member Peterson alerted Chairman [Frank] Lucas [R-Ok] at the very last minute that he could not produce what he promised under pressure from both the White House and House Democratic leadership.”
Only 24 Democrats voted for the bill, with the opposition focused on $20.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamp plan known as SNAP. The Republicans delivered 171 votes, including Minnesotans Erik Paulsen and John Kline, but still lost the support of more than a quarter of their caucus.
As a result Congress faces the unprecedented prospect of having to extend the old farm bill for a second year.
The alternative, said Peterson, is to get the Agriculture Committee’s version of the farm bill back on the floor and resist amendments.
“I think you may see some kind of process next week to bring something back,” Peterson predicted.
The bill’s failure even shocked its opponents.
“I didn’t expect it to be defeated,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat who represents Minneapolis and is vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Ellison acknowledged that the farm bill contains programs important to Minnesota, but added, “we could not tolerate $20 billion in SNAP cuts.”
Peterson and fellow Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz, both of whom serve on the Agriculture Committee, voted for the bill.
But Minnesota Reps. Betty McCollum and Rick Nolan, both Democrats, joined Ellison in opposing it. Like Ellison, they had voted Wednesday in favor of stripping the food stamp cuts from the bill. The Republican majority defeated that amendment 234-188.
“I was prepared to vote in favor of the bill,” Nolan said, “but in the end there were simply too many poison pills by the extreme Republican right.”
“In the end,” Nolan added, “politics replaced common sense in the farm bill.”
The left and right wings of the parties ultimately combined to sink the bill. Bachmann suggested that nutrition programs be separated from farm policy. “Food stamps and farm policy should be addressed separately in order to achieve the reforms they need and that farmers and all Americans deserve,” said her spokesman, Dan Kotman.
Many anti-government Tea Party Republicans joined Bachmann in opposing the bill.
The sticking point throughout the House floor debate was $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts. House members argued over the morality and efficacy of the cuts before voting down the amendment to kill them. The food stamp cut differs radically from the $4 billion in cuts approved in a Senate farm bill passed earlier this month. The White House also had threatened to veto a farm bill with food stamp cuts as large as the House bill prescribed.
“We’ve got to get [food stamp cuts] back to where reasonable people can live with [them],” Peterson said in a news conference after the vote. He also blamed amendments that Republicans added to the bill that made food stamp eligibility more restrictive and killed a dairy price support program.
The 103 amendments the representatives considered could have bled support, Ellison agreed. “You pick up and lose votes on every amendment,” he said.
The defeat in the House followed passage of a Senate farm bill with bipartisan support. Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, who backed the Senate bill along with fellow Democrat Amy Klobuchar, called the House defeat “a huge, huge disappointment.” He noted that one in five Minnesota jobs is tied to agriculture, and that “farmers don’t just want a five-year farm bill, they need one.”
Star Tribune staff correspondent Corey Mitchell contributed to this report.