WASHINGTON -- House Republicans narrowly passed a beleaguered farm bill Thursday, but only after they eliminated the food stamp program for low-income families that conservatives have wanted to cut.
Even with the massive reduction in food aid, though, Republican leaders could barely rally support to pass the bill. In the past, farm bills have reliably won support from congressional Republicans, many of whom represent rural districts, but last month conservatives defeated a version of the measure, which they decried as overspending.
This time, with the food stamp section of the bill removed, it passed 216-208, with 12 Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition.
Approval may be short-lived. The version of the legislation that was passed by the Senate this year is vastly different, and the two bills would need to be reconciled before anything could be sent to the White House. White House officials said that President Obama would veto the current bill if it were to reach his desk.
Republican leaders said they would put forward a separate bill to make changes in the food stamp program. That bill might address conservative criticism that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program had ballooned during the recession. A record high number of American families now receive food aid, in part because of efforts by states, including several with Republican governments, to encourage their citizens to enroll.
“I’m pleased the House took a positive first step forward in providing some much-needed reforms to our farm programs today,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “Reforming our food stamp programs is also essential.”
Democrats, though, were outraged at withholding support for the food stamp program. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus used the final hour of debate to press the issue.
Passage of the bill after it had been defeated last month represented a victory of sorts for Boehner and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader. The narrow margin by which the current version passed illustrated how hard it has become for the House leadership to control its rank-and-file.
Conservative groups have continued to protest government spending on agricultural support payments for farmers and other measures they say are unnecessary.
The Farm Bureau was also displeased with the outcome and the removal of the food assistance programs.
The farm organization had been “hopeful the farm bill would not be split,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We will now focus our efforts on working with lawmakers to deliver a farm bill to the president’s desk for his signature by September."