Slash or save? Close food-stamp vote looms in House

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Food-stamp defenders appealed for two dozen Republican defectors to help kill their party's proposed $40 billion cut in the main U.S. anti-hunger program as a close vote nears later this week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The reforms pushed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R.-Va.) and fiscal conservatives would end benefits for roughly 10 percent of recipients. They would restrict eligibility for a program that has doubled in enrollment and tripled in cost since 2004.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) told reporters on Tuesday "we do know of several Republicans" who opposed the cuts, but she declined to name them. Republicans control the House 233-200, so Democrats need at least 17 cross-overs to defeat the bill and Republicans need a party-line vote to pass it.

David Beckman, leader of anti-hunger group Bread for the World, said activists were talking to more than 20 Republican lawmakers in the hope of persuading them to oppose the bill. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, a leader in the group Food Policy Action, said: "We need 20 House members to do the right thing."

The White House threatened to veto a bill in June that proposed $20 billion in food stamp cuts.

(Read more: Record 46 Million are on food stamps)

"If $20 billion in cuts is unacceptable, $40 billion is doubly unacceptable," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week.

Food stamps, which cost $78 billion last year, are the overriding issue in the development of a new farm bill, a year overdue and offering slim hope of passage at present.

The House vote on food stamps could open the door to House-Senate negotiations on a final version of the $500 billion, five-year farm bill, although analysts say it might be hard to write a compromise that will pass Congress. The Senate has voted for $4 billion in food stamp reforms. Both chambers want to expand the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance system.

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At a news conference, Pelosi and two other Democrats praised food stamps as the cost-efficient bulwark against hunger in a weak economy and decried the proposed cuts as heartless and immoral in trying to win over wavering Republicans.

"Don't do this," said Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, who described the $40 billion in cuts as an ideologue's "fever dream."

The Cantor-backed package would limit able-bodied adults without dependents to three months of food stamps in a three-year period unless they worked part-time or were in a workfare or job-training program. And it would end a provision, created by the 1996 welfare reform law, that allows states to give food stamps to people whose assets are larger than usually allowed.

Those two steps would save $39 billion over 10 years and reduce enrollment by almost 4 million people in 2014, said the Congressional Budget Office. Another reform would reduce benefits by $90 a month for 850,000 households.

(Read more: Why government probably can't close rich-poor gap)

"No individual who meets the income and asset guidelines of the ... program and is willing to comply with the applicable work requirements will lose benefits as a result of these reforms," Cantor said in a Sept. 6 memo to Republicans.

Critics such as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities say the impact of the three-month limit will be harsh because workfare and job-training programs are not large enough to handle the need, so people would lose benefits if they cannot find work quickly. States now can apply for waivers of the three-month limit during times of high unemployment.

The Republican package would satisfy a goal of conservative reformers. It would split apart the farm subsidy and nutrition programs, traditionally considered in a single omnibus bill. In the future, they would be considered separately, which reformers say will make it easier to cut wasteful spending.