WASHINGTON — The House and Senate Agriculture Committees have laid the groundwork this week for reducing the size of the federal food stamp program, approving farm bills that would shrink the food aid and alter the way people qualify for it.
The two chambers are far apart on how much the $80 billion-a-year program should be cut, however — reflecting a deep ideological and, at times, emotional divide on the role of government in helping the poor.
Resolving those differences will be key to passage of the massive five-year farm bill that lawmakers are attempting to push through for the third year in a row. The far-reaching bill costs almost $100 billion annually over five years and would set policy for farm subsidies, rural programs and food aid.
Legislation approved by the House Agriculture Committee late Wednesday would cut about $2.5 billion a year — or a little more than 3 percent — from the food stamp program, which is used by 1 in 7 Americans. A Senate Agriculture Committee bill approved a day earlier would cut less than a fifth of that amount.
At both committee meetings, debate over the food stamp cuts was heated, with defenders of the program saying the bills would take food out of the mouths of children and the elderly. In the House, the discussion turned to the Bible.
Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., quoted the book of Matthew in opposing the cuts: "When I was hungry you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink."
In response, several Republicans talked about their Christianity and said the Bible encourages people to help each other but doesn't dictate what the federal government should do. "We should be doing this as individuals, helping the poor," said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., offered an amendment to do away with the cuts that were rejected by the panel. "Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever — we're failing our brothers and sisters here," McGovern said.