WASHINGTON (AP) -- A House committee rebuffed Democratic efforts Wednesday to keep the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program whole, as debate on the farm bill turned into a theological discourse on helping the poor.
The House bill would cut about $2.5 billion a year — or a little more than 3 percent — from the food stamp program, which is used by 1 in 7 Americans.
The committee rejected an amendment by Democrats to strike the cuts 27-17, keeping them in the bill.
The legislation would achieve the cuts partly by eliminating an eligibility category that mandates automatic food stamp benefits when people sign up for certain other programs. It would also save dollars by targeting states that give people who don't have heating bills very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits.
Republicans argued that the cut is small relative to the size of the program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and that people who qualify for the aid could still sign up for it, they just wouldn't be automatically enrolled. They defended the cuts after Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., quoted the Book of Matthew in opposing them: "When I was hungry you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink."
Several Republicans talked about their Christianity and said the Bible encourages people to help each other but doesn't dictate what the federal government should do. "We should be doing this as individuals, helping the poor," said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., offered the amendment to do away with the cuts. He said taking the hunger assistance away from people will just make the poor "more vulnerable and more miserable."
"Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever — we're failing our brothers and sisters here," McGovern said.
The cuts are part of massive legislation that costs almost $100 billion annually over five years and would set policy for farm subsidies, rural programs and the food aid. The House panel started work on the legislation Wednesday, one day after the Senate Agriculture Committee approved its version.
Last year more than 47 million people used the SNAP program with the cost more than doubling since 2008. The rolls rose rapidly because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus law.
Republicans criticized Obama in last year's presidential campaign for his expansion of the program, and many House conservatives have refused to consider a farm bill without cuts to food stamps, which make up about 80 percent of the bill's cost.
The Senate approved much smaller cuts to the program, about $400 million a year. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., will have to appease all sides as he tries to push the farm bill through for the third year in a row, balancing calls from House conservatives to cut the program with Senate Democrats who are reluctant to touch it.
"I expect it to come from all directions," Lucas said last week of the food stamp debate.
The House bill would cut around $4 billion a year from food aid and farm spending, while the Senate bill would trim roughly $2.4 billion. Those reductions include more than $600 million in yearly savings from across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year.
Much of the savings in the House and Senate bills comes from eliminating annual direct payments, a subsidy frequently criticized because it isn't tied to production or crop prices. Part of that savings would go toward the deficit reduction, but the rest of the money would create new programs and raise subsidies for some crops while business is booming in the agricultural sector.
The Senate bill would eliminate direct payments immediately, while the House bill would phase out payments to cotton farmers, who rely on the program, over the next two years.
Like the Senate bill, the House measure also includes concessions to Southern rice and peanut growers who also depend on direct payments. The bills would lower the threshold for rice and peanut subsidies to kick in when prices drop.
There are protections for other crops as well. Both bills would boost federally subsidized crop insurance and create a new program that covers smaller losses on planted crops before crop insurance kicks in, favoring Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, who use crop insurance most often.
The committee made no changes to the subsidy programs in the bill Wednesday, and Lucas made no apologies for broadening some farm programs.
"Let's give certainty to an industry that has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy," he said as he opened the committee meeting.
The farm bill passed the Senate last year but the House declined to take it up after conservatives in that chamber objected to the cost and insisted on higher cuts to food stamps. This year, the full House will consider the bill.
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