WASHINGTON — House Republicans narrowly approved deep reductions to the food stamp program Thursday that would reduce or eliminate benefits for nearly 4 million Americans, setting up an all but certain showdown with the Senate.
GOP leaders yielded to conservative demands to make austere cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program after lawmakers rejected an earlier proposal as part of the usually popular farm bill. Leaders separated the food stamp provision from the farm-subsidy legislation to ensure both bills would pass.
The White House said the president would veto the legislation if it survived the Senate. Democrats argued that seniors and active duty military families would be kicked off the food stamp program and that free school lunches would end for more than 200,000 children.
The House approved the bill 217-210, with more than a dozen Republicans opposed and no Democrats in favor.
"It's unconscionable, in our view, to literally take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans in order to, again, achieve some ideological goal," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. The legislation "is just terrible policy. And it's insensitive."
Republicans argued the $40 million in reductions in the program over the next decade are needed to reduce growing dependence on government programs.
The number of Americans receiving food stamps skyrocketed during the Great Recession, from about 26 million in 2007 to nearly 47 million in 2012, according to the Agriculture Department, which administers the program.
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., said the changes will preserve access to food stamps for those in need, while "holding accountable those who are capable of helping themselves."
Democrats argued otherwise. "There's only one word that comes to mind: cruel," said Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y.
Now both the farm and food stamp bills will need to be merged with legislation from the Senate, which makes much more modest reductions in the nutrition program.
"The good news is, now that this vote is behind us, we are close to the finish line," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee. She called the House GOP effort a "monumental waste of time."
The Republican bill would change food stamp eligibility rules, in part by doing away with the ability of states to waive work-related requirements for able-bodied adults without children to continue receiving food stamps.
Among the Republicans opposing the bill were some from the few remaining politically contested districts, as well as others from regions where residents are dependent on food stamp subsidies.
The average monthly food stamp benefit is $133 per person, or $275 per household, according to the Agriculture Department.