It’s not easy to pass a farm bill in the House without a single Democratic vote. House Republicans, however, accomplished just that feat — twice.
The farm and nutrition bills were vital affirmations for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after the first bipartisan farm bill crashed and burned. As Republicans tussle with the White House and the Democratic Senate over the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling, it was important for House GOP leaders to illustrate control over their sometimes-unruly conference.
It was especially important for Cantor, who made the farm bill and "Welfare Reform 2.0" his pet issue.
To understand what the Virginia Republican had at stake, you have to go back to January, to the Republican retreat at a golf resort in Williamsburg, Va. That's where Cantor laid out a plan to apply the principles of welfare reform to programs such as food stamps and housing.
"Requiring able-bodied food stamp recipients to work or be in job training has an 89% approval. Work requirements for welfare programs generally has a 93% approval," a slide from the retreat read.
Even after the first farm bill went down on the floor, Cantor remained devoted.
“I think it’s a big win for Eric,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind. “He saw what happened when the farm bill went down. And one thing I appreciate about him is that he listened, tried to figure out what the problem was, and he adapted.”
After Cantor caught heat for the failure of the original farm bill, he rallied the troops, made the highly controversial decision to separate the agriculture-only provisions from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and cobbled together an all-Republican coalition to pass a farm bill sans food stamps, 216-208.
But then there was the matter of the more than $700 billion nutrition title. No matter how much the bill cut, Cantor knew there would be some on the right unhappy that the cuts weren't larger.
He also knew any cut would be condemned by Democrats as balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.
He set up a working group of about 15 GOP members — from the Agriculture Committee, the Republican Study Committee and the moderate Tuesday Group — and handed them a draft bill.
The group members gave their input and signed off on a final version, which Cantor sent to the Republican Conference before the August break.
Cantor knew it was a non-starter for Democrats. The problem: They didn't have the votes on their side.
Cantor and McCarthy prepared a briefing document meant to allay member concerns. And he sent out a “Charge and Response” document that addressed constituent contentions and laid out counterarguments.
But the votes still weren’t there. And that’s when they got creative — only authorizing food stamps for three years.
Different expiration dates for farm and nutrition bills would truly break the farm bill/food stamp alliance — or it would be solid negotiating leverage in conference. At the very least, it was a solid sales pitch to House Republicans.
“That was it, that was brilliant,” Stutzman said. “That’s actually a big selling point for me and for a lot of other conservatives.”
Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, was surprised to hear about that change after the vote.
“Oh, that’s what they do here?” Peterson asked to the chorus of reporter laughs. “Oh, I don’t know, I haven’t even read it. I think this is all nonsense.”
Aides theorize that the decoupling reauthorization maneuver won over more than 20 Republicans.
And with that whip count, which was still south of 200 Republicans, Cantor decided to bring the bill to the floor.
On Monday, with just four days to convince Republicans distracted by the looming CR battle, Cantor made room in his schedule to meet with dozens of lawmakers — right up to an hour before the final vote. Aides say Cantor was able to handle a number of lawmaker contentions, including concerns over veteran access to food stamps, the effect on the poverty line and more.
It passed 217-210.
While the maneuver helped unite Republicans, it's far from clear whether the cuts will ever become law.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., ripped the House bill as "balancing the budget on the backs of hungry Americans."
House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., may have said it best in his closing remarks on the nutrition bill: "Everything seems to be hard these days."