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House votes due on crop subsidies, food stamps, delay food safety rules

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is expected to vote Thursday on cuts to government farm subsidies and food stamps as lawmakers move toward passage of a five-year, half trillion-dollar farm bill.

Farm-Bill-Dairy Sidd

FILE - This Feb. 11, 2009 file photo shows a shopper looking over the milk aisle at the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vt. Approval of a massive farm bill _ and the cost of a gallon of milk _ could hinge on a proposed new dairy program the House is expected to vote on this week. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Republican leaders have said they want to finish voting on the bill Thursday. Supporters have been working this week to shore up support for the measure as members of both parties have signaled opposition to the legislation's $2 billion cut in food stamps.

Many Republicans say the cut is not enough; the food stamp program has doubled in cost over the last five years to almost $80 billion a year and now helps to feed 1 in 7 Americans. Liberals oppose any reductions in food stamps, contending that the House plan could remove as many as 2 million needy recipients from the rolls.

The chamber rejected an attempt by Democrats Wednesday to eliminate the $2 billion in cuts and instead slash subsidy payments to farmers. Republican attempts to make the cuts even deeper are expected Thursday, along with other amendments that would overhaul sugar and dairy subsidies and cut federally-subsidized crop insurance.

The outcome of those votes could affect the vote on final passage of the bill, which is expected to come Thursday.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., sped the chamber through consideration of almost all of lawmakers' 103 amendments to the legislation Wednesday night. The House at one point adopted 35 amendments at once in a single vote.

The House debated an amendment Wednesday by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., to limit government help for crop insurance paid to wealthy farmers and limit the subsidies the government gives to crop insurance companies. The vote on that amendment was postponed until Thursday.

The House bill, which would cut around $4 billion a year in overall spending on farm and nutrition programs, expands crop insurance programs and creates a new kind of crop insurance that kicks in before farmers' paid policies do.

But Kind and other Democrats say the bill should cut more from farm subsidies like crop insurance and less from food stamps.

Opposition to farm subsidies has been growing among Republicans, some of whom are expected to vote for the Kind amendment. Conservative groups have been lobbying aggressively against the bill.

Conservatives have also proposed the amendments that would reduce sugar supports and overhaul the dairy subsidies, both of which could turn lawmakers from certain regions of the country against the bill, threatening its passage.

The House is also scheduled to vote on an amendment to reduce food stamp benefits if Congress fails to pass a farm bill. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said he offered the amendment to create more of a sense of urgency among Democrats.

"Right now, they're on the take side, and they're not part of the process," Conaway said. Conaway and other members of the House Agriculture Committee have been scrambling to find enough votes for the bill, which could falter without Democratic support in the Republican-controlled House.

For several decades, farm bills have combined farm subsidies and food stamps in an effort by sponsors to attract urban votes for a mostly rural bill. But that coalition is now shaky, as conservatives have insisted on cuts to food stamps.

Other amendments adopted by voice vote late Wednesday chipped away at food stamps. The House adopted an amendment to require drug tests for food stamp recipients, angering Democrats who said the tests would be demeaning to applicants. Lawmakers also adopted an amendment that would end a 2004 U.S.-Mexico agreement to educate Mexican-Americans about food stamps. More amendments to scale back the program are expected.

Also Wednesday, the House voted to delay sweeping food safety rules proposed by the Food and Drug Administration earlier this year.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he has concerns about the overall legislation but wants to get the farm bill to House and Senate negotiators for a potential deal. He said he will vote for it, saying the change in policy is better than doing nothing.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., says the bill is necessary to avoid farm crises and that it has some of the biggest reforms in decades. It would eliminate $5 billion a year in direct payments, subsidies that are paid to farmers whether they grow crops or not. The measure would also expand crop insurance and make it easier for rice and peanut farmers to collect subsidies.

The Senate passed its version of the farm bill last week, with about $2.4 billion a year in overall cuts and a $400 million annual decrease in food stamps — one-fifth of the House bill's food stamp cuts.

House votes to delay food safety rules

Farm-Bill Sidd

FILE - This April 16, 2013 file photo shows customers shopping for produce at the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, Vt. Vermont's 17 food cooperatives are supporting a bill that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods. The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would allow states to require labeling of genetically modified foods. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, said his amendment was an attempt to clarify that states can require the labels, as several legislatures have moved toward putting such laws into place. Both the Vermont House and Connecticut Senate voted this month to make food companies declare genetically modified ingredients on their packages. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House voted late Wednesday to delay sweeping food safety rules that would require farmers and food companies to be more vigilant about guarding against contamination.

Lawmakers adopted an amendment by voice vote to a wide-ranging farm bill just before midnight that would delay the rules signed into law in 2011 until the Food and Drug Administration conducts a study on their economic impacts.

The proposed rules would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, to include making sure workers' hands are washed, irrigation water is clean, and that animals stay out of fields, among other measures.

The amendment was offered by Republican Rep. Dan Benishek of Michigan, who said the regulations would be burdensome to farmers in his district.

Earlier in the day, the House voted to cut food stamps by $2 billion a year as part of the farm measure.

The chamber rejected, 234-188, a Democratic amendment to the five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm legislation that would have maintained current spending on food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The overall bill cuts the $80 billion-a-year program by about 3 percent and makes it harder for some people to qualify.

The food stamp cuts have complicated passage of the bill and its farm-state supporters were working to secure votes Wednesday. Many conservatives have said the food stamp cuts do not go far enough since the program has doubled in cost in the last five years and now feeds 1 in 7 Americans. Liberals have argued against any reductions, contending the House plan could take as many as 2 million needy recipients off the rolls. The White House has threatened a veto over the food stamp cuts.

The amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and other Democrats would have eliminated the SNAP cuts and taken the money from farm subsidies instead.

"It's too big, it's too harsh and it's going to hurt so many people," McGovern said of the food aid cuts.

Other amendments chipped away at the program. The House adopted by voice vote an amendment to require drug tests for SNAP recipients, angering Democrats, who said the tests would be demeaning to people who apply for the food aid. Lawmakers also adopted by voice vote an amendment that would end a 2004 U.S.-Mexico agreement to educate Mexican-Americans about food stamps. More amendments are expected to try and scale back the program.

Also complicating passage is growing Republican opposition to farm subsidies, some of which are expanded under the bill. Republicans have proposed amendments that would cut back dairy and sugar supports that could turn lawmakers from certain regions of the country against the bill if they were to succeed.

The House is scheduled to continue voting on 103 amendments to the bill Thursday, with a vote on passage possibly next week. As of Wednesday, it was unclear if Republicans had enough votes.

In an effort to push the legislation through, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week that he would vote for it, while making it clear that he did not really like it. He said he wants to get the bill to House and Senate negotiators for a potential deal and that passing the bill was better than doing nothing.

The legislation would cut around $4 billion a year in overall spending on farm and nutrition programs. The Senate passed its version of the farm bill last week, with about $2.4 billion a year in overall cuts and a $400 million annual decrease in the SNAP program — about a fifth of the amount of the House food stamp cuts.

Democratic leaders have said they will wait to see how the House votes on the many amendments, but have so far signaled opposition to the measure. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California argued against the food stamp cuts on the floor Wednesday and was a "likely no" on the bill, according to an aide. No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland called the food stamp cuts "irresponsible."

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told colleagues that a robust farm policy was necessary to avoid farm crises like those in the 1930s and 1980s.

"I will work with all of you to improve this draft," he said Tuesday. "I ask you to work with me."

The legislation would achieve some of the food stamp cuts by partially eliminating what is called categorical eligibility, or giving people automatic food stamp benefits when they sign up for certain other programs. The bill would end a practice in some states of giving low-income people as little as $1 a year in home heating assistance, even when they don't have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits.

Lucas said the cuts would still allow people who qualify to apply for food stamps, they just wouldn't automatically get them.

The Oklahoma Republican has called the overall legislation the "most reform-minded bill in decades" because it would make needed cuts to food stamps and eliminate $5 billion a year in direct payments, subsidies that are paid to farmers whether they grow or not. The bill would expand crop insurance and makes it easier for rice and peanut farmers to collect subsidies.

The bill also sets policy for international food aid abroad, which is currently shipped from U.S. farms. The House rejected an amendment to shift around half of international food aid money to more flexible accounts that allow for cash purchases abroad.

The Obama administration has proposed shifting the way the food aid is distributed, saying it would be more efficient to make purchases closer to conflict areas.

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