Sunday, November 20, 2005

House votes to cut $700 mln in food stamps


House votes to cut $700 mln in food stamps

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Friday to cut $700 million from the food stamp program, despite objections from antihunger groups complaining that estimates show some 235,000 people would lose benefits.

The House bill, which also trimmed other social programs for the poor in an effort to reduce federal spending by $50 billion, was narrowly approved 217-215.

House and Senate negotiators now must write a final, compromise version of legislation to pare federal spending over five years. The Senate did not touch food stamps in its version of a $35 billion budget-cutting bill.

Food stamps, the major U.S. antihunger program, help poor people buy food. Some 25.8 million Americans received food stamps in a program run by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Saxby Chambliss said through a spokesman that he was aiming for "zero" cuts in food stamps during talks with the House. As a committee chairman, the Georgia Republican would be a senior negotiator.

The final bill should abandon proposals to cut food stamps, urged Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center. "In nutrition, the Senate did the right thing," she said.

Bread for the World, another antihunger group, said the prospect of food stamp cuts "will make Thanksgiving bleaker for hundreds of thousands of hard-working families." It pointed to government estimates that 38.2 million Americans live in "food insecure" households that have trouble buying enough food.

House Republican leaders say the cuts are only a sliver of food stamp spending that runs more than $35 billion a year. Earlier this week, House Majority Leader Roy Blunt said the cuts would focus the program on "the people you intended to help instead of just adding on at the edges."

In a statement, the White House said it supported the House "efforts to narrow overly broad exemptions from the food stamp program's eligibility limits." President (George W.) Bush proposed restrictions in February that are similar to the House-approved steps.

Under the House plan, roughly 165,000 people now automatically enrolled in food stamps when they get assistance from welfare programs would lose food stamps. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said these were mostly working families with children.

States would have the option to continue offering free school lunches to families cut off of food stamps. The Center on Budget said it was unlikely all states would do so.

The House proposal also would require 70,000 legal immigrants in most cases to wait seven years to become eligible for food stamps, rather than the current five years. That brings the total number of people affected by the plan to 235,000.