Agriculture

House GOP loses farm bill fight for tougher work requirements for food aid recipients

Federal food aid recipients won’t be faced with major new work requirements. And changes in forestry policy that made environmentalists furious are gone.

House Republicans gave up Thursday on trying to include those provisions in a massive farm policy bill, clearing the way for a vote in Congress next week.

The concessions will likely help draw Democratic votes to the bill in the House. Democrats indicated support would be more bipartisan and follow similar numbers on past farm bills, which tend to pass comfortably.

The farm bill will reauthorize the nation’s nearly $900 billion in food and agriculture programs for another five years. That includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, which helps low income families pay for food. The bill also deals with crop insurance, a program that protects farmers against financial losses due to disasters and droughts.

Out is the House Republicans’ plan, which aimed to expand work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries. The GOP wanted the work rules to apply to able-bodied adults up to age 59 and to people with young dependent children, an unpopular prospect to Democrats. Leaving that out will mean more support from House Democrats but will alienate some Republicans.

House Republicans lacked enough clout to push for the stricter work requirements after Democratic victories in this month’s House elections.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the lead negotiator for the Senate, was vague about the specific provisions in the compromise. But when asked if the bill would be closer to the Senate’s plan for SNAP, Roberts replied, “I would say, yes.”

The Senate plan included incentives for states to expand work training programs and added new accountability measures to the program.

“It’s more comprehensive and focuses on program integrity,” Roberts said.

A senior Democratic staff member said while SNAP provisions did mostly reflect the Senate version, there were certain “concessions” given to House Republicans. But those concessions will be “tweaks and tightening” to work requirements, not “big sweeping increases,” the staff member said.

Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, said that the House would largely have to accept the Senate’s position on the nutrition program.

“I don’t think we can get a single Democrat to vote for some of the requirements in the House nutrition title,” Thune said.

Some House Republicans are already signaling the changes mean they won’t support the final bill.

Rep. Mark Walker, R-North Carolina, said on Twitter that he couldn’t support the new version of the farm bill after the concessions on some key issues.

“House conservatives, the president and the vast majority of Americans support policies that encourage work and help lift people out of poverty. As I’ve said for months, those provisions have to stay,” Walker said.

But Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, a House Agriculture Committee member, said “I think we can get it passed,” even though “for me to sit here and say we’re not going to lose some Republican votes, I can’t say that.” Marshall supports the bill because it preserves crop insurance, a top priority for his district.

Thune said Republicans would also make concessions in the debate over forest fires, an issue that had been elevated to the Senate and House leadership teams after negotiators reached an impasse on the issue in the wake of deadly wildfires in California.

President Donald Trump’s administration and House Republicans advocated for new rules that would expedite forest-thinning projects, but Democrats and environmental groups successfully protested the measure, warning it would be an ineffective tool against fires. Those controversial provisions will be completely stripped from the final version.

The bill will also include a provision that makes it legal for farmers to grow and market hemp products, Roberts confirmed.

“I think it’s going to be a good crop everywhere,” Roberts said. “There’s all sorts of industrial use for that. We’re not talking about cannabis. We’re talking about industrial hemp, so it’s another crop that we’re very hopeful can be a real income producer.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, had strongly advocated hemp legalization. His home state was once a major producer of the crop before its production became outlawed. The 2014 farm bill had included a provision that allowed states to make limited hemp cultivation legal.

Senators from both parties indicated the final bill would widely resemble the Senate version of the bill rather than the House version, which passed without a single Democratic vote. The Senate requires at least 60 votes to pass the bill, which means the 51 Republican senators need Democratic support to pass it, unlike in the House, where Republicans currently have a majority.

The deal came together Wednesday, nearly two months after the Sept. 30 deadline to pass the bill.

Securing the compromise is a major win for Roberts.

The 82-year-old Kansas Republican, who was first elected to Congress in 1980, has not ruled out another run for U.S. Senate in 2020 and would struggle to convince voters of his viability in an agriculture-dependent state if Congress failed to produce a farm bill by the end of the year.

The McClatchy Washington Bureau’s Lesley Clark contributed to this report.
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