WASHINGTON -- The House has voted to cut nearly $4 billion a year from food stamps, a 5 percent reduction to the nation's main feeding program used by more than 1 in 7 Americans.
The 217-210 vote was a win for conservatives after Democrats united in opposition and some GOP moderates said the cut was too high. Fifteen Republicans voted against the measure.
The bill's savings would be achieved by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs. The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the almost $80 billion-a-year program has become bloated. More than 47 million Americans are now on food stamps, and the program's cost more than doubled in the last five years as the economy struggled through the Great Recession. Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed the program was doing its job.
Finding a compromise -- and the votes -- to scale back the feeding program has been difficult. The conservatives have insisted on larger cuts, Democrats opposed any cuts and some moderate Republicans from areas with high food stamp usage have been wary of efforts to slim the program. The White House has threatened to veto the bill.
House leaders were still shoring up votes on the bill just hours before the vote. To make their case, the Republican leaders emphasized that the bill targets able-bodied adults who don't have dependents. And they say the broader work requirements in the bill are similar to the 1996 welfare law that led to a decline in people receiving that government assistance.
"This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most," Cantor said on the floor just before the bill passed. "And most people don't choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job ... They want what we want."
The new work requirements proposed in the bill would allow states to require 20 hours of work activities per week from any able-bodied adult with a child over age 1 if that person has child care available. The requirements would be applicable to all parents whose children are over age 6 and attending school.
The legislation is the House's effort to finish work on a wide-ranging farm bill, which has historically included both farm programs and food stamps. The House Agriculture Committee approved a combined bill earlier this year, but it was defeated on the floor in June after conservatives revolted, saying the cuts to food stamps weren't high enough. That bill included around $2 billion in cuts annually.
After the farm bill defeat, Republican leaders split the legislation in two and passed a bill in July that included only farm programs. They promised the food stamp bill would come later, with deeper cuts.
In order to negotiate the bill with the Senate, Republicans said Thursday that one more step is needed -- the House will have to hold a procedural vote to allow both the farm and food stamp bills to go to a House-Senate conference together. It is unclear whether Republicans who pushed to split the two bills will oppose that effort.
Once the bills get to that conference, negotiations with the Senate will not be an easy task. A Senate farm bill passed in June would only make a tenth of the cuts to food stamps, or $400 million, and the White House has issued a veto threat against the House bill. The two chambers will also have to agree on policy for farm subsidies amid disputes between different crops.
Every Democrat voting on Thursday opposed the bill. Many took to the floor with emotional appeals.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the bill is a "full assault on the health and economic security of millions of families." Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett called it the "let them starve" bill.
Suburban lawmakers split along party lines with Republican U.S. Reps. Peter Roskam of Wheaton and Randy Hultgren of Winfield supporting the proposal to cut food stamp funding.
Roskam said the cuts made the food stamps program stronger by trying to eliminate abuse of the system.
"Our legislation reinstates the requirement that able-bodied individuals without children be actively engaged in either looking for a job, participating in job training, or working," Roskam said in a statement. "The idea is simple: providing assistance for needy Americans while encouraging those who can work to build the skills they need to be self-reliant."
Suburban Democratic U.S. Reps. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, Bill Foster of Naperville, Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, Brad Schneider of Deerfield and Mike Quigley of Chicago voted "no."
On a conference call before the vote, Foster said 10 percent of the people in his district are on food stamps, and kicking some people off the program could hurt their ability to get back on their feet. And Schakowsky spoke on the House floor on the issue this week.
"Is this really what we were sent here to do? To take food out of the mouths of hungry people, nearly half of them children?" she said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that House Republicans are attempting to "literally take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans in order to, again, achieve some ideological goal."
The Congressional Budget Office says that if the bill were enacted, as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014.
Around 1.7 million of those would be the able-bodied adults who would be subject to work requirements after three months of receiving food stamps. The 1996 welfare law put that limit into law, but most every state has been allowed to waive that requirement since the Great Recession began in 2008.
The other 2.1 million would lose benefits because the bill would largely eliminate so-called categorical eligibility, a method used by many states that allows people to automatically qualify for food stamps if they already receive other benefits. Some of those people who qualify that way do not meet current SNAP income and asset tests.
The Census Bureau reported this week that just over half of those who received food stamps were below poverty and 44 percent had one or more people with a disability.
By state, Oregon led the nation in food stamp use at 20.1 percent, or 1 in 5, due in part to generous state provisions that expand food stamp eligibility to families. Oregon was followed by more rural or more economically hard-hit states, including Mississippi, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan and Tennessee. Wyoming had the fewest households on food stamps, at 7 percent.
• Daily Herald Political Editor Mike Riopell contributed to this report