WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders scrambled Thursday to line up support in advance of a late-afternoon vote on legislation that would cut nearly $4 billion a year from the food stamp program, now used by 1 in 7 Americans.
Some GOP moderates questioned the 5 percent cut to the almost $80 billion-a-year program as Democrats united strongly against it.
The bill's savings would be achieved by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs. The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults who don't have dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the program has become bloated. More than 47 million Americans are now on food stamps, and the program's cost more than doubled in the last five years as the economy struggled through the Great Recession. Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed the program was doing its job.
Finding a compromise — and the votes — to scale back the feeding program has been difficult. Conservatives have insisted on larger cuts, Democrats have opposed any cuts and moderate Republicans from areas with high food stamp usage have been wary of efforts to slim the program.
"I think the cuts are too drastic and too draconian," said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., who plans to vote against the bill. He represents Staten Island, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy last year. "Those that really need the program will suffer," he said.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, also plans a "no" vote, according to his spokesman, Michael Anderson. He said Young is concerned about the impact the cuts could have on people in his state's poorest, most rural areas.
Many Democrats took to the floor Thursday with emotional appeals. Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett called it the "let them starve" bill.
At his daily press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney said House Republicans are attempting to "literally take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans in order to, again, achieve some ideological goal."
With some Republicans wavering, the vote could be close. The GOP leaders have been reaching out to moderates to ensure their support while anti-hunger groups have similarly worked to garner opposition to the cuts.
The food stamp legislation is the House's effort to finish work on a wide-ranging farm bill, which has historically included both farm programs and food stamps. The House Agriculture Committee approved a combined bill earlier this year, but it was defeated on the floor in June after conservatives revolted, saying the cuts to food stamps weren't high enough. That bill included around $2 billion in cuts annually.
After the farm bill defeat, Republican leaders split the legislation in two and passed a bill in July that included only farm programs. They promised the food stamp bill would come later, with deeper cuts.
Republicans have emphasized that the bill targets able-bodied adults who don't have dependents. And they say the broader work requirements in the bill are similar to the 1996 welfare law that led to a decline in people receiving that government assistance.
"Politically it's a great issue," says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., one of the conservatives who has pushed for the larger cuts. "I think most Americans don't think you should be getting something for free, especially for the able-bodied adults."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said earlier this week that Democrats are united against the bill.
"Maybe I'm just hoping for divine intervention, but I really do believe that there are enough Republicans that will not identify themselves with such a brutal cut in feeding the American people," Pelosi said at a news conference.
Even if the bill does pass, it is not expected to become law. The Democratic Senate has opposed any major cuts, and that chamber passed a farm bill in June that had around a tenth of the cuts in the House bill, or around $400 million a year. President Barack Obama has also opposed cuts that go beyond the Senate bill, and the White House issued a veto threat Wednesday.