WASHINGTON - The Senate on Wednesday rejected a Republican bid to turn the federal food stamp program over to the states.
Known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the food stamp program is administered by the Agriculture Department and federal dollars are unlimited as long as recipients qualify. The program cost $78 billion last year, more than double the price in 2008.
A proposal by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to a wide-ranging farm bill would have converted the program into grants to states, which could decide how to use the money, with certain restrictions. The Senate rejected the amendment 60-36.
The total amount of the grants would have been capped at between $46 billion and $54 billion a year over 10 years. Inhofe said the change would make the farm bill, which long has set policy for domestic food aid as well as agriculture programs, "into a farm bill and not a charity bill."
Food stamps have come under renewed scrutiny as the program's costs have ballooned in recent years. Many Republicans have favored changing the SNAP program into grants, though the idea has never gained much traction in Congress.
Last year more than 47 million people used SNAP. The numbers have risen rapidly because of the economic downturn, higher food prices and expanded eligibility under the 2009 economic stimulus law.
Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who heads the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said Inhofe's plan would mean "devastating results for millions of families who are trying to feed their children."
The Senate adopted a separate amendment by voice vote that would prevent convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles from receiving food stamps for life.
Though no senators objected to the amendment, offered by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the liberal-leaning think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said it could have "strongly racially discriminatory effects."
"Poor, elderly African-Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit," said Robert Greenstein, president of the group. "The amendment essentially says that rehabilitation doesn't matter and violates basic norms of criminal justice."
The Senate farm bill would cut the food stamp program by $400 million a year, or about half of 1 percent. The Senate on Tuesday rejected a Republican amendment to increase that cut and a Democratic amendment to decrease the cut.
The House version of the farm bill would cut $2 billion a year, or a little more than 3 percent, from the domestic food aid.
Both the Senate and House bills would target states that give people without heating bills small amounts of heating assistance so they automatically can qualify for higher food stamp benefits. The House also would eliminate policy that would allow states to give people automatic food stamp benefits when they sign up for certain other programs.
Resolving the differences on food aid between the two chambers will be key to passage of the five-year farm bill. The legislation costs almost $100 billion annually and would set policy for farm subsidies, other rural programs and the domestic food aid.
The Senate is expected to consider several more amendments to the farm bill this week, including cuts to government-subsidized crop insurance.
The chamber rejected another amendment Thursday 54-45 that would have scaled back a Depression-era sugar program that supports prices and protects growers from foreign competition. Candymakers and other food and beverage companies have long said government protections for sugar farmers artificially restrict supplies, force consumers to pay more for sugar products and only benefit a few thousand well-off growers.
The Senate passed a similar farm bill last year, but the House did not consider it. The House Agriculture Committee approved its version of the farm bill last week and the full House is expected to vote on the bill this summer.