President Barack Obama, in a rebuke to proposals by House Republicans for steep cuts in food stamps for the poor, urged Congress on Thursday to pass a farm bill "that protects children and vulnerable adults in time of need."
Obama put the long-delayed bill, more than a year overdue, among three priorities for resolution by end of the year. Also on the list were immigration reform and a budget agreement.
Food stamps, the major U.S. antihunger program, are the make-or-break issue for the $500 billion, five-year farm bill. House Republicans want to tighten eligibility rules and save $39 billion over a decade. The Democratic-run Senate suggested $4.5 billion could be squeezed out by closing certain loopholes.
In remarks at the White House, Obama said "we should pass a farm bill, one that American farmers and ranchers can depend on; one that protects vulnerable children and adults in times of need; one that gives rural communities opportunities to grow and the long-term certainty that they deserve."
The administration has threatened twice to veto large cuts in food stamps. It said Congress should instead end the $5 billion-a-year "direct payment" subsidy to farmers and scale back on federal subsidies for crop insurance.
Obama credited the Senate for writing "a solid, bipartisan" bill. "If House Republicans have ideas that they think would improve the farm bill, let's see them. Let's negotiate. What are we waiting for? Let's get this done," said Obama.
In response, the House Agriculture Committee said the four leaders of the House and Senate committees met on Wednesday to get negotiations moving. The first meeting of the 41 "conferees" from the House and Senate, appointed to write a compromise farm bill, was expected by the end of the month.
An estimated 3.8 million people would lose food stamp benefits in 2014 under the House bill, mostly by shortening the time able-bodied adults can receive benefits and by eliminating a provision, created as part of welfare reform, that allows benefits to people with more assets than usually permitted.
A near-record 47.8 million people received benefits at latest count. Enrollment surged by more than 20 million people since the recession of 2008-09. Republican say continued high enrollment is a sign the program needs reform. Democrats say it shows weak economic recovery.