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Food stamps take center stage in farm bill debate

File Photo: U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson talks to a 2008 ethanol conference in St. Paul.(Minn. State Capitol Bureau)

ST. PAUL - Food stamps are at the same time the biggest hurdle to enacting federal farm policy and a necessary part of passing the farm bill.

Discussion about cutting spending for the program to feed poor Americans dominated Tuesday as three days of U.S. House debate began on the farm bill, a 2,000-page document to establish federal farm and nutrition policies for five years. Hundreds of amendments have been crafted to the bill, with a vote expected Thursday.

"While I think it's ridiculous to cut hundreds of billions of dollars, as some members have called for, it's also just not realistic to refuse to cut one penny from these programs," western Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson said of food stamp cuts. "I do believe that we can make some reasonable, responsible reforms and, at the end of the day, find some middle ground that will allow us to complete our work on this bill."

Peterson, the top-ranking House agriculture Democrat, said the bill does far more than just cut food stamp spending.

"The farm bill gives farmers and ranchers the necessary tools to provide American consumers with the safest, most abundant and most affordable food supply in the world," Peterson said as debate opened.

It increases spending on some food programs and eliminates direct payments to farmers.

The nearly $1 trillion House bill would cut $20 billion over 10 years from food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A farm bill senators passed last week cut $4 billion.

President Barack Obama threatened to veto the House bill if it contains cuts as deep as the Republican-controlled House wants.

Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents St. Paul and eastern Twin Cities suburbs, called that the food stamp program "a lifeline."

"It ensures they (recipients) don't have to decide between buying medicine and buying food," she said.

She said 38,000 Minnesotans would lose food stamps if the cuts are allowed.

Republican critics say the program is out of control and unaffordable. Defenders say enrollment soared as a result of the financial distress of 2008 and reflects continued high unemployment.

Enrollment has doubled since 2004 and costs, at $78 billion in 2012, nearly tripled.

Farm interests know the food stamp debate is critical to getting what they want. Without mostly urban votes supporting food stamps, passing any farm bill would be difficult or impossible.

Lawmakers long ago combined nutrition program for the poor and farm spending into the same bill so they could get enough votes to pass both.

How to deal with aid for dairy farms split Peterson and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. However, while the dispute could prevent the farm bill's passage, Peterson told the House Rules Committee that the two have agreed to accept the House's decision on the issue and keep the bill moving forward.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.