WASHINGTON — Stick a pitchfork in the farm bill.
The five-year piece of legislation that governs billions in food stamps and crop subsidies suffered an unexpected, resounding defeat Thursday in the House.
It was unusually quiet in the chamber as lawmakers stared at the vote tallies on the wall and watched the number in the “no” column tick higher and higher.
Many Democrats who felt the bill's cuts to food stamps — which is the largest part of the bill — went too far cheered the final tally: 195 in favor, 234 against. All but 24 Democrats voted against it. They were joined by 62 Republicans.
“I am shocked by today's outcome,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said. “We now face an uncertain future for farm policy.”
All seven House members from Iowa and Nebraska — five Republicans and two Democrats — voted for the legislation. They vented after the vote and grasped for a way forward.
“I am angry and frustrated at the failure of the House to recognize the importance of a long-term farm bill extension to farmers and rural America,” said Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, one of the few Democrats to back the measure. “Passing a farm bill isn't optional; it's a necessity for Iowa agriculture producers who need certainty and predictability so they can invest in the future, create jobs and grow our economy.”
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., took issue with the Democrats' cheering the bill's defeat and said now there will be no savings from the cuts to food stamps and other programs.
The bill's proponents could start over on a new version of the bill or negotiate directly with the Senate, which already approved its version of the bill. But none of the options look particularly promising.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, walked off the floor Thursday clutching a printout of all the no votes.
Speaking with reporters, he suggested that lawmakers take a little time to catch their breath and possibly revisit the issue next month, after the Fourth of July recess.
He said he would speak to colleagues who opposed the bill and noted what would happen if Congress fails to act this summer — no cuts to the food stamp program and farm policies reverting to the last time a permanent farm bill was passed, in 1949.
“This is going to be a bit of stare-down now,” King said.
Putting together a farm bill often involves a lengthy process of balancing regional interests and competing philosophies. But this bill has faced an especially difficult road in a Congress that's as polarized as ever.
On the left, liberal Democrats refused to vote for a farm bill that cuts more than $2 billion a year from food stamps. Making the bill even harder for them to swallow was one of the last amendments adopted: a Republican proposal adding optional state work requirements.
On the right, conservative Republicans either opposed the farm bill altogether or wanted to see even deeper cuts in food stamps. The cost of that program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has doubled since 2008 and now represents about 80 percent of the legislation. Under the bill, the program would have cost about $80 billion a year.
In between the two camps: a no-man's land that doesn't have enough votes to get the bill through.
King said moving the bill toward either side would cost some of the bill's existing support, making the legislation's prospects poor.
“I wouldn't say it's impossible, but I'm not particularly optimistic,” King said.
The bill's defeat also means that amendments authored by Nebraska representatives won't become law.
The House had adopted a proposal by Terry to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from releasing personal information on farmers. A Fortenberry amendment would have capped crop subsidy payments at $250,000 a year per farmer.
Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, noted that most Republicans supported the legislation while only a fraction of the Democrats in the House did so.
“However, I have real frustration with the members of both parties — Republican and Democrat — who have blocked progress on this issue, denying us the opportunity to achieve $40 billion in common-sense savings to taxpayers and Iowa farmers the respect and certainty they deserve,” he said.
Last year, the House GOP leadership refused to even allow a floor vote on the farm bill written by the House Agriculture Committee.
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., expressed support for the decision not to allow a vote at the time, saying that if the support wasn't there, a floor defeat would be counterproductive.
Smith represents Nebraska's sprawling and heavily agricultural 3rd Congressional District, which covers most of the state outside Omaha and Lincoln.
Still, Smith declined Thursday to criticize the leadership's decision to bring this year's bill up for a vote on Thursday.
He suggested that a healthy, open amendment process might have been responsible for the bill's defeat and said Republicans can't be afraid of that process.
Smith said the bill's proponents will consider their options.
“I want to think positively.”