Updated 10:19 a.m. | House GOP leadership is gambling that it can line up 218 Republican votes to pass a farm bill later today shorn of food stamps without the support of conservative groups who helped kill the bill the last time around.
Late Wednesday, the House Rules Committee refused to make any amendments in order to the new, 608-page farm bill, spurning conservative groups' demand for an open amendment process.
Leaders added a repeal of the 1949 law that requires the passage or extension of a farm bill as a carrot to conservatives, but groups like the Club for Growth demanded far more and announced they will key vote against the bill. And, of course, the measure dropped food stamps in another bid to shore up GOP support.
According to Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., the likely result will be that dropping food stamps from the bill now will mean the Senate's far slimmer cuts to the program will be adopted in the end. He appealed to Democrats on the Rules Committee by suggesting that in conference with the Senate, the House would likely either accept the Senate's $4 billion cut from current spending to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — compared with the House bill, which advocated for roughly $20 billion in cuts — or the Senate would not advance its nutrition title, effectively continuing current spending.
While that argument has some appeal to Democrats, it is a major concern among Republicans and conservative groups, who have dismissed the leadership maneuver as a ploy aimed at getting to conference.
Asked before the emergency Rules meeting whether Republicans have 218 votes for an agriculture-only farm bill, Lucas said, “Uhh,” pausing to choose his words carefully, “I have faith in my leadership.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been whipping the Republican caucus furiously this week, trying to find enough votes to pass the bill without relying on Democratic support.
With the decision to move the bill to the floor, it would appear Republicans are close to having the votes.
But a GOP aide familiar with the whip process described the support Wednesday night as “soft.”
When Lucas was asked if Republicans would be relying at all on any Democratic votes, he chuckled. When he composed himself, he said, “I try to run bipartisan bills, and I encourage all of my colleagues on both sides to vote on the merits of the issues, and we shall see.”
But the Agriculture Committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, released a statement Wednesday night saying he would not be supporting the measure.
"I still believe splitting the farm bill is a mistake in the long run,” Peterson’s statement said. “They are ignoring the advice of most of the groups affected by the bill, and I see no clear path to getting a bill passed by the House and Senate and signed by the President."
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., said if Peterson votes against the measure, then he would be “hard put to get more than two or three Democrats to vote for it. You heard me.”
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said on Wednesday that he hoped no Democrats would vote for the GOP proposal. “It’s a terrible, misguided approach,” he said. “They’re obviously a deeply divided party.”
“The farm bill failed because of a lack of bipartisan support," Hoyer said. "They lost 62 Republican votes. Well, if that’s the case what would the rational response be? Well, we need more Democrats. What do you do? You move toward the Democratic position. They moved in exactly the opposite direction.”
The White House also weighed in with a veto threat.
Cantor’s plan with the farm bill split was to find 218 Republican votes. That threshold seemed to be eluding Republicans, as leadership kept putting off the Rules meeting to set up floor debate.
Asked if he thought there was sufficient GOP support to pass the split farm bill, Steve King, R-Iowa, said if he were the whip, his answer would be: “Got to be.”
“You don’t get to do this twice, or three times I should say,” King said.
It was Heritage Action for America CEO Michael Needham and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who came up with the plan to split the farm bill more than a year ago. Stutzman said Wednesday that he would support the split bill.
"This is an unconventional process that we're going through. And I think that's where some of the outside groups would like to go back to committee, separate it and start all over again," Stutzman said. "But sometimes you just have to take the victory when it's right in front of you and move forward and try to capitalize on it and next time we'll fight other fights."
But Needham released a statement Tuesday saying his group would not support the farm-only bill.
“This is nothing more than a naked attempt to get to a conference committee with the Senate,” Needham said. “The end result of such a conference would be a perpetuation of subsidies and government intervention that will continue to harm consumers and taxpayers alike.”
Mike Simpson said Wednesday night that groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth, who announced earlier in the day they were sponsoring a primary challenger to Simpson, were to blame for producing a flawed piece of legislation. The Idaho Republican theorized that the result of splitting the farm bill would be passing a farm-only portion of the bill, and then going to conference with the Senate where it would drop in its more robust SNAP provisions.
“What’s going to happen, because they sunk the farm bill, a Republican farm bill, that had reforms in it in both the farm programs and in the SNAP programs, what they’re going to end up with is a bill that is more to their dislike,” Simpson said. “The bill moves more in the direction that the Club for Growth and Heritage Action don’t want.”
It's unclear, when, or if, the House would move a nutrition-only bill.
“As soon as I could put a title together that 218 people would vote for, I would come asking the Rules Committee for permission to go to the floor,” Lucas told the Rules Committee late Wednesday night. “I don’t know whether that’s a day, a week, or a month.”