WASHINGTON (AP) -- Prospects for House passage of a new farm bill could turn on the level of food stamp cuts as key backers scrambled Wednesday to secure support for the five-year, half-trillion dollar measure.
The House planned to begin voting Wednesday on 103 amendments to the bill, including a Democratic proposal to eliminate $2 billion in cuts in the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The bill also would make it more difficult for some to qualify for food stamps, and would expand some agriculture subsidies and set policy for rural development programs.
Many conservatives have said the food stamp cuts do not go far enough, while liberals have argued against any reductions, contending the House plan could take as many as 2 million recipients off the rolls. The cuts are about 3 percent of the program.
Farm-state lawmakers are trying to win bipartisan backing for the measure, but are facing defections from both parties over the SNAP cuts. It was unclear whether Republican leaders would have the votes needed to pass the bill.
Conservative groups that have lobbied against the legislation favor greater cuts to farm subsidies and food stamps. The White House has threatened a veto over the food stamp cuts.
In an effort to push the legislation through, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week that he would vote for it, while making it clear that he did not really like it. He said he wants to get the bill to House and Senate negotiators for a potential deal, and that passing the bill was better than doing nothing.
The legislation would cut around $4 billion a year in overall spending on farm and nutrition programs.
Democratic leaders have said they will wait to see how the House votes on the many amendments, but have so far signaled opposition to the measure. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California was a "likely no" on the bill, according to a spokesperson, and No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland called the food stamp cuts "irresponsible."
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told colleagues that a robust farm policy was necessary to avoid farm crises like those in the 1930s and 1980s.
"I will work with all of you to improve this draft," he said Tuesday. "I ask you to work with me."
The legislation would achieve some of the food stamp cuts by partially eliminating what is called categorical eligibility, or giving people automatic food stamp benefits when they sign up for certain other programs. The bill would end a practice in some states of giving low-income people as little as $1 a year in home heating assistance, even when they don't have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits.
Lucas said the legislation was the "most reform-minded bill in decades." He said it would make needed cuts to food stamps and eliminate $5 billion a year in direct payments, subsidies that are paid to farmers whether they grow or not. The bill would expand crop insurance and makes it easier for rice and peanut farmers to collect subsidies.
Any changes to the delicate balance of farm subsidy support in the bill could cause lawmakers who represent the regions or crops affected to turn on the legislation. Amendments targeting rice, peanut, sugar and dairy subsidies, among other crops, were expected to have contentious votes.
It has been more than five years since the House passed a farm bill. Since then, Republicans took control of the House and more than 200 new members have been elected; many are conservatives who replaced rural Democrats.
The politics of farm and food aid have also changed since then. Farm country is enjoying record-high prices and is one of the most profitable sectors of the economy, causing many lawmakers to question why farmers still receive more than $15 billion a year in subsidies. The food stamp program has doubled in cost as the economy has struggled.
If the bill fails, said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Congress will have to haggle over another extension of current law.
"If we can't get this through now, I don't know when we can," he said.
House Agriculture Committee: http://agriculture.house.gov
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick