WASHINGTON (AP) - The government's food stamp program, which helps feed 1 in every 7 America, was one of the few programs exempted from this year's automatic spending cuts. But now it is likely to get trimmed.
Unresolved is by how much.
The Democratic chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee is only willing to take roughly one-half of 1 percent, or about $400 million annually, off the top as the panel prepares to move a massive farm bill through committee next week. Her Republican counterpart in the House, also preparing to consider a farm bill next week, would give the program a makeover and cut it by five times that amount.
Republicans complain the popular safety net program - now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP - has more than doubled in size since 2008, to $78.4 billion last year, and critics say its growth is partly due to an expansion of the program through President Barack Obama's economic stimulus law the year he took office. Last year, it helped feed more than 46 million people.
Neither committee has released its version of the bill, but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., says he plans to propose a cut of about $2 billion a year. The House bill would also propose changes in the structure of the SNAP program, something Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and other Senate Democrats have adamantly opposed.
Both committees proposed slightly smaller changes to the program in bills they pushed in the last Congress, but the House bill never moved to the floor, in part because Republicans in that chamber argued for deeper cuts. But this year House leadership has committed to moving a bill, meaning the two sides will have to somehow resolve their differences over food stamps.
"I expect it to come from all directions," says Lucas, who is trying to write a bill that will satisfy his House colleagues who want the deeper cuts and Senate colleagues who want smaller cuts.
It won't be easy, but finding the right amount of food stamp cuts will be the only way farm-state lawmakers can get the five-year farm bill passed. The bill, which also sets policy for farm subsidies and other rural development programs, has historically included food stamps and domestic food aid to gain support of urban lawmakers who may not otherwise vote for the bill.
This year, food stamps are making passage harder.
"It's probably the largest obstacle that this farm bill faces," says Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. He says settling on a number for food stamps won't be as easy as haggling over food and farm programs, where lawmakers from different regions typically support each others' priorities to get what they want. "It's about the numbers," he said.
Stabenow's bill is expected to find the $400 million in annual cuts by targeting states that give people who don't have heating bills very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits. That approach passed the Senate last year in a farm bill that died at the end of the congressional session when the House failed to move on the legislation.
Lucas says the House bill will make those same changes but also end what is called "broad-based categorical eligibility," or granting automatic food stamp benefits when people are signed up for certain other programs.
Lucas said in an interview with The Associated Press that the change makes sense because if people need SNAP benefits, they can still sign up for them. They just won't automatically qualify.
"We just want to make sure everyone demonstrates they qualify," Lucas said. "If you need the help I have to believe there would be someone there to help you. This isn't going to be as draconian or as dramatic as some people will paint it."
But Democrats and anti-hunger groups who have long championed food stamps say the changes will toss millions of people off the rolls at a time when they need it most. The program expanded in the last several years as the economy struggled and food prices rose.
"Regrettably, what House Republicans have proposed goes well beyond fixing abuse and instead would leave parents who have fallen on hard times unable to put food on the table for their children," Stabenow said. "That approach is not acceptable and will not pass the Senate."
Stabenow, too, is caught in the middle of getting a farm bill passed and appeasing her caucus. New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, a Democrat, has called both proposals, including Stabenow's, "callous" and bristled at her colleagues who call the heating assistance eligibility a "loophole." She says she will try to erase the cuts on the Senate floor, as she did unsuccessfully last year.
The debate over food stamps doesn't always fall along party lines - the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, has said he won't support major cuts to food stamps because it is a popular program in his state. Food companies and states, both of which benefit from the program, are also expected to fight changes.
On the House side, conservatives are expected to offer amendments to convert the program to block grants to the states, a move that could freeze spending and cut the benefit to many who now receive it.
"I expect it to be a very lively debate on the floor," Lucas said.