WASHINGTON — Rep. Jeff Fortenberry broke ranks Thursday with most of his fellow House Republicans to vote against legislation that would cut food stamps by about $40 billion over 10 years.
That amounts to a 5 percent reduction in the nation's main food program, which is used by more than 1 in 7 Americans.
The bill represented a dilemma for the Lincoln lawmaker, who waited until the last possible moment to cast his vote.
Fortenberry said he sees a need for broad debate about overhauling the country's social welfare programs.
“When you're just focused on nutrition and hunger, that's a harder, harder lift in isolation,” Fortenberry said after the vote.
Fortenberry was one of only 15 GOP House members to oppose the bill, which passed 217-210. Other Republicans from Iowa and Nebraska supported it. No Democrats voted for the bill.
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.
It also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
House Republicans have said the almost $80 billion-a-year program has become bloated. More than 47 million Americans receive food stamps, and the program's cost more than doubled in the past five years as the economy struggled through the Great Recession.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he has watched the significant growth in the program over the years, and he criticized the Obama administration for efforts to sign up more people.
King said the legislation represents a sincere effort to get the country's finances in order.
“There won't be needy people that are taken off of this,” King said. “There isn't going to be food coming out of the mouths of babes. This is categorical. This is so that the resources are available to the people that need it, those that are truly hungry.”
Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed that the program was doing its job.
Disagreement over the food stamp program is what doomed a farm bill proposal earlier this summer. Food stamps and crop subsidies have traditionally been bundled together in the farm bill, but that measure's $20 billion reduction to food stamps failed to satisfy many hard-line conservatives seeking to cut deeper, and it was voted down.
So House leaders brought up the farm support programs on their own, and they were approved.
Passage of the food stamp legislation on Thursday paves the way for the House and Senate to work out their differences on both aspects of the farm bill, but they have a lot of work to do.
Food stamp cuts in the Senate-passed farm bill amount to one-tenth of what the House has approved.
Fortenberry favored the earlier House version that was defeated on the floor and said he hopes something similar comes out of the negotiations with the Senate.
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said he was optimistic that Thursday's vote was a positive development in getting a farm bill to the president's desk.
“Completing a new long-term farm bill is among my highest priorities,” Smith said.
He said the House-passed bill “would make important reforms to focus food stamp assistance for families in need, help beneficiaries become more self-sufficient and save $40 billion for taxpayers over the next 10 years.”
The Congressional Budget Office says that if the bill approved Thursday were enacted, as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014.
About 1.7 million of those would be able-bodied adults who would be subject to work requirements after three months of receiving food stamps. The 1996 welfare law imposed that limit, but almost every state has been allowed to waive that requirement since the recession began in 2008.
The additional 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 people who qualify that way do not meet current income and asset tests.
More than 180,000 Nebraskans rely on food stamps, many of them the children of low-income working parents.
James Goddard, Nebraska Appleseed's economic justice director, said it isn't clear exactly how many of those Nebraskans would lose food stamps as a result of the House-passed bill.
“This is a program that works, and it helps thousands of folks in our state put food on the table when they're having trouble making ends meet. ... So if you're talking about cutting $40 billion out of the program, there is no doubt that that is going to increase the food hardship for people, I would say, dramatically across our state,” Goddard said.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., acknowledged that the level of cuts approved by the House on Thursday is steep.
“It's a lot,” Terry said. “As a negotiator in lots of settlements and deals, you know you don't go in there with your lowest number either. So the reality is when it gets to conference between the Senate and the House, there will be changes and I expect those. But the premises and the principles are there. ... We're making a statement that we're serious about these reforms.”
Federal food assistance goes to hundreds of thousands of people in Nebraska and Iowa. Statistics below are from June 2013.
|People who received aid||Increase from year earlier||Average monthly benefit per participant*|
|* Aid amounts can differ depending on income and household makeup|
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
An earlier version of this story and headline referred to $4 billion in food stamp cuts rather than $40 billion.