WASHINGTON — With one in seven Americans now receiving food stamps, Republicans in Congress are leading efforts to cut back the social safety net program that has swelled to one of the largest in the federal government — and they are getting some support from Democrats.
The farm bill being debated in the Senate reduces funding for food stamps and is finding support from both sides of the aisle as lawmakers look for ways to cut the nation's rising debt in an election year.
Trimming back on eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are now called, would save $4 billion over the decade. Republicans are pushing to reduce that even more.
The farm bill is one of the few bipartisan efforts in this deeply divided Congress and, if approved, would set agriculture policy for the next five years.
As record deficits fuel anxiety, lawmakers have chiseled $23 billion from agricultural programs — even below reductions mandated for the coming fiscal year by last summer's debt deal with the White House.
But the hit to the food stamps program, which has seen its costs skyrocket during the recession, has sparked debate.
"Is the benefit going to the right people? Is the money being expended wisely?" asked Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has led efforts to change the SNAP program, during a recent floor speech. "Is it encouraging people to look for ways to be productive and be responsible for their families? Or does it create dependency on a series of government programs?"
An estimated 45 million Americans received food stamps in 2011, more than ever before, at a cost of $78 billion. That was a sizable increase from 2007, when 26 million Americans received food assistance at a cost of $30 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The Senate bill, if approved later this week, is likely to face resistance in the GOP-led House, where Republicans have also sought cuts to the SNAP program.