(CBS NEWS) After watching the cost of food stamp assistance soar during the recession, the Republican-led House of Representatives on Thursday plans to vote on a bill to cut the food stamp program by a whopping $40 billion over 10 years.
The major cuts were designed to satisfy House conservatives who rejected more moderate reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) earlier this year, but with millions of Americans still struggling to recover from the recession, Democrats are balking at the GOP bill.
"What the House Republicans are saying is this: get a good paying job or your family will just have to go hungry," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "But there aren't enough good paying jobs, as you can see... The Republican approach is like saying we're tired of spending so much on wildfires, so we'll just cut the budget of the fire service. That isn't going to work."
Stabenow said the House bill -- called the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act -- "will never see the light of day in the Senate."
Even if it did pass in the Democratic-led Senate, President Obama has promised to veto the legislation. "These cuts would affect a broad array of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, including working families with children, senior citizens, veterans, and adults who are still looking for work," the White House said in a statement on the bill.
The White House once again urged Congress to reauthorize SNAP spending in a bill that also renews agricultural assistance, as Congress traditionally has. The Democratic-led Senate in June passed a five-year farm bill that would have cut about $400 million from SNAP annually, but the cuts were too modest for conservaties in the House. In fact, a bill failed in the House that would have cut $2 billion a year from the food stamp program, in part because House Democrats called the cuts too steep and because some conservatives said they weren't steep enough.
In addition to making cuts twice that size, the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act would end waivers that let able-bodied adults without children get food stamps indefinitely without meeting certain work requirements. It would allow states to impose more work and job-training requirements on able-bodied parents in the program and end government campaigns to publicize the program.
"This bill not only restores the integrity of this safety-net program, it will help beneficiaries become more self-sufficient," a memo from House Republican Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. The memo contends that "middle class families struggling to make ends meet themselves foot the bill for a program that has gone well beyond a safety net for children, seniors, and the disabled."
The cost of SNAP has more than doubled since 2008, coming to nearly $78 billion last year. In 2007, the percentage of American households that lacked sufficient access to food stood at 11.1 percent, but it increased to 14.6 percent in 2008 as the recession hit. That figure has remained virtually unchanged since then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in September, with 14.5 percent of households that were "food insecure" in 2012.
However, Democrats have pointed out that the food stamp program should shrink when the economy finally turns around. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's estimate, SNAP participation is projected to decline from 48 million people in 2014 to 34 million in 2023.
With the economy still struggling to recover, now is the wrong time to cut the program, Democrats say. "When unemployment is high and people can't pay their bills, that's exactly the time they need the SNAP program," Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said on the House floor Wednesday.
Earlier this week, House Democrats recruited anti-hunger advocates, including celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, to lobby against the Republican measure. At a press conference Tuesday, Colicchio, who's best known as the head judge on "Top Chef," said he was looking for about 20 House Republicans "to do the right thing" and join Democrats in opposing the bill.
"This is not about a budget, this is about the strength of a country," he said.
Stephanie Condon, CBS News