WASHINGTON -- The Senate overwhelmingly rejected a bid to preserve some $4.5 billion in food stamps funding, as part of the massive farm bill, on Tuesday.
The amendment to keep that spending in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), failed 33 to 66. Sixty votes were needed to pass.
Gillibrand had hoped to prevent food aid cuts in the $969 billion bill by trimming the guaranteed profit for crop insurance companies from 14 to 12 percent and by lowering payments for crop insurers from $1.3 billion to $825 million.
"We all here in this chamber take the ability to feed our children for granted. That is not the case for too many families in America," Gillibrand said just before the vote. "Put yourselves for just a moment in their shoes. Imagine being a parent who cannot feed your children the food they need to grow. It's beneath this body to cut food assistance for those who are struggling the most among us."
The cuts target the so-called heat-and-eat initiative in which 14 states automatically make families eligible for more food aid if they receive even $1 in help paying their utility bills. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the decrease would amount to about $90 a month for an affected family, representing a quarter of its food budget.
"Half of the food stamp beneficiaries are children, 17 percent are seniors, and unfortunately now 1.5 million households are veteran households that are receiving food stamps," Gillibrand said, referring not just to heat-and-eat participants, but the broader population of food stamp recipients.
Four of Gillbrand's colleagues on the Republican side voted with her, including Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who was a co-sponsor of the amendment. But 22 of her fellow Democrats balked, seeing as abuse the heat-and-eat initiative she was trying to save. Those Democrats included the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
"Here's what's going on: In a handful of states, they found a way to increase the SNAP benefits for people in their states by sending $1 checks in heating assistance to everyone who gets food assistance," said Stabenow. She allowed that heating costs are properly a factor in determining the need for aid, but said that states like New York and Massachusetts are going too far.
"Sending out $1 checks to everyone isn't the intent of Congress," Stabenow said. "For the small number of states that are doing that, it is undermining the integrity of the program in my judgment. This is about accountability and integrity."
Congress has grown increasingly concerned about spending for the food stamp program. Some 26 million Americans received the aid in 2007, while more than 44 million received it last year, at a cost of $76 billion. The Congressional Budget Office estimated recently that demand will continue to grow through 2014 in the wake of the recession.
The House has proposed even steeper cuts. The 2013 budget resolution passed by the lower chamber calls for $134 billion in cuts over 10 years. The House Agriculture Committee's version of the farm bill would slash $33 billion over 10 years.
The Senate's version, while much more modest in its cuts, would move in the same direction. Moreover, it likely represents the best-case scenario for food stamp advocates when House and Senate negotiators work out the differences between their measures later in the year.
The Senate's farm bill is expected to pass later this week.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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