WASHINGTON (AP) - The House passed Thursday a scaled-down version of a massive farm bill, putting off a fight over food stamp spending and giving Republican leaders a victory after a decisive defeat on the larger bill last month.
The GOP leaders scrambled to get the bill to the floor and gather enough votes after deciding to drop a politically sensitive food stamp section of the bill and pass legislation that contained only farm programs.
They faced significant opposition to the plan from Democrats, farm groups and conservative groups that threatened to use the vote against GOP members in future campaigns. But Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., navigated his colleagues to a narrow 216-208 vote by convincing Republican members that this was the best chance to get the bill passed and erase the embarrassment of the June defeat. Any other path to passage would have most likely included concessions to Democrats who opposed the original bill. Last month 62 Republicans voted against the original $100 billion-a-year bill after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Cantor supported it. Only 12 Republicans voted against the new measure and no Democrats voted for it.
Republicans said the food stamp part of the legislation would be dealt with separately at a later date, and Cantor said after the vote that Republicans would "act with dispatch" to get that legislation to the floor.
Just hours before Thursday's floor vote, it was still unclear whether GOP leaders had the votes needed to pass the new measure containing only farm programs. The legislation faced a veto threat from the White House, and House Democrats reacted angrily to the last-minute move by the GOP.
Conservative groups and farm groups traditionally aligned with Republicans were also lobbying against the measure, as was the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson.
Peterson, of Minnesota's 7th District, joined the rest of the Democrats in voting against the bill. He told the Independent shortly after the vote that Thursday's passage of the bill at least opens the door for a conference with the Senate.
"That's what we're trying to do - get a conference with the Senate," he said. "The problem is the Senate didn't agree with splitting the bill."
In a statement on the House floor before Thursday's vote, Peterson said splitting the farm bill would be a mistake that would jeopardize the chances of it ever becoming law. Repealing the permanent law, he said, "all but ensures that we will never write a farm bill again. I'm not alone in my belief that this is a flawed strategy. Last week, a broad coalition of 532 agriculture, conservation, rural development, finance, forestry, energy and crop insurance groups expressed their opposition to splitting the farm bill and urged House Leaders to pass a five-year farm bill."
Peterson said there has been no assurance from Republican leadership that passing a bill would allow the House to conference with the Senate in a timely manner.
"I have repeatedly said that if only we could be left alone, the Agriculture Committee could put together a good bill with good policy," he said. "Last month, Republican Leaders interfered by pushing into the farm bill poison pill amendments, amendments that the Chairman and I both said could bring the bill down. Even if the House passes this bill today, I fear Leadership's continued interference will doom any prospects of getting a bill to the president to sign."
Peterson also said this is the first bill he remembered, at least in a long time, where there was a unanimous vote among Democrats.
But GOP leaders moved quickly. The night-before release of the bill's text underscored the lengths to which House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio had to go as he tried to get legislation past his fractious Republican caucus.
Splitting the popular farm bill from the controversial food stamp cuts, and releasing the bill's text at 8 p.m. EDT on the eve of the scheduled vote Thursday, denied conservatives the time to rally opposition to it. But the bill's prospects remained a tense question through the day.
Before the vote, Boehner acknowledged that the process was unusual but said, "My goal right now is to get a farm bill passed."
The dropped food stamp section would have made a 3 percent cut to the $80 billion-a-year feeding program. Many Republicans say that isn't enough since the program's cost has doubled in the last five years. Democrats have opposed any cuts. The food stamp program doesn't need legislation to continue, but Congress would have to pass a bill to enact changes.
The idea of a split bill was to pass the farm programs - the Congressional Budget Office calculates they would cost about $20 billion a year and contain about $1.3 billion a year in cuts to farm subsidies - and take the food stamp portion up later. Republicans could then be able to make bigger cuts to the food programs and pass that bill with conservative support.
In voting for the bill, conservative lawmakers made the unusual move of bucking the conservative groups Club for Growth and Heritage Action, both of which said they would use a "yes" vote against Republicans in future campaigns. While those groups originally supported the idea of dropping the food stamps and taking that part of the bill up separately, they later said the GOP idea was a ruse to get the bill in conference with the Democratic-led Senate, where food stamps will be added back in with smaller cuts.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed a farm bill last month with only a half-percent cut to food stamps and would be reluctant to go along with a split bill or further cuts to the programs.
During the floor debate, House Democrats angrily opposed the bill and called for a series of procedural votes to delay. They painted the legislation as taking the food stamps away from the hungry.
"You are taking food out of the mouths of your own poor constituents," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told Republicans in a floor speech.
The White House agreed that food stamps should not be left out of the bill and threatened to veto it. The Obama administration had also threatened to veto the original bill, saying it did not include enough reductions to farm subsidies and the food stamp cuts were too severe.
Farm groups and anti-hunger groups have warned that separating the farm and nutrition programs after decades of linking them would be misguided. Rural lawmakers have long added money for food stamps to the farm bill, which sets policy for agricultural subsidies and other farm programs, to gather urban votes for the measure.
The vote was a welcome victory for Republicans who have struggled to bring their majority together on even bigger issues like immigration and the budget.
"Thank God, we can do something!" exclaimed Rep. Tom Rooney R-Fla., as he walked off the floor after the final vote.
From staff and