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DelBene leaves stamp on contentious farm bill
The contentious farm bill headed for a vote in the U.S. Senate includes $200 million for a pilot project authored by Rep. Suzan DelBene to use taxpayer money to train food-stamp recipients for jobs.
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — The mammoth farm bill passed by the U.S. House last week contains a provision written by Rep. Suzan DelBene, of Medina, to replicate a Washington state program to train food-stamp recipients for jobs with taxpayer money.
But the $200 million, three-year pilot project indirectly prompted two of DelBene’s fellow Democrats from Washington state to vote against the overall legislation — the delegation’s first fissure after three previous votes on the House farm bill that split along party lines.
DelBene’s provision is one of a slew of compromises in the 10-year, $956 billion farm bill that may help Democrats and Republicans break a two-year stalemate. The House on Wednesday passed it 251-166, with majority Republican support but with 60 percent of Democrats voting no.
Among them were two of six Democrats from Washington, Reps. Adam Smith, of Bellevue, and Jim McDermott, of Seattle. They criticized the proposed $8.6 billion in cuts over 10 years for food stamps, which help low-income Americans buy groceries.
House Republicans last September passed a bill that would have slashed $40 billion, or nearly five times as much, from food stamps over a decade. But McDermott argued even the smaller cut “isn’t moral” and would leave kids and adults hungry.
The Senate may take a floor vote as early as Monday. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray plan to vote yes, though both had pushed to prevent cuts to nutrition assistance.
Despite its name, about 80 percent of the farm bill’s spending would go to food stamps, officially called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and known as Basic Food in Washington state. The rest pays for crop and insurance subsidies for farmers.
Spending on food stamps has roiled conservatives in Congress ever since it swelled after the Great Recession and because of loosened income limits. In 2013, taxpayers paid out $ 76 billion in food-stamp benefits.
In Washington, a record 1.12 million residents were receiving Basic Food benefits in fiscal 2013, or 1 of every 6 people. More than 38 percent of them are children
State residents with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level or $23,340 a year for a single person, qualify for Basic Food. The maximum benefit is $189 a month for a single person, or $6.30 a day.
To placate both liberals and conservatives, a farm-bill conference committee bartered for compromises. One of them was DelBene’s jobs-training program.
Initially, DelBene, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, asked for $30 million over three years for a pilot project replicating Washington’s program that provides tuition-free training to get people off food stamps and onto payrolls.
Some 18,000 people received job training in 2013 through the Basic Food Employment & Training program. Participants receive help ranging from career guidance to gas vouchers, child care to free tuition, to train for careers as bank tellers, welders, billing specialists and other jobs.
Washington split the roughly $24 million annual cost with the federal government.
But instead of providing $30 million for a pilot project, the House increased funding for DelBene’s idea nearly sevenfold, to $200 million.
That money was a peace gesture to help offset a $8.6 billion reduction in food-stamp allotments by tightening rules for deductions for heating and cooling bills that had helped some households get extra benefits. Washington is among 16 states and the District of Columbia that had been paying token amounts to enroll people in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helped some of them deduct utility expenses they didn't incur to lower their net household income.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the new rules would reduce food-stamp benefits to 850,000 households around the country by an average of $90 a month. Some 200,000 of them are in Washington.
It was that disproportionate effect on the state that led Smith to vote against the bill this week, said his spokesman, Ben Halle. Smith’s 9th Congressional District stretches from Bellevue and Mercer Island south to Des Moines, Federal Way and parts of Tacoma.
“I have visited with multiple nutrition-assistance organizations and community leaders, and seen firsthand how thousands of our state’s children, veterans, seniors, disabled, and hardworking families rely on SNAP every day,” Smith said in a statement. “This program is as important now as it has ever been.”
Republicans agreed to earmark $200 million in SNAP savings for food banks. The concessions were enough to win votes from 162 Republicans and 89 Democrats, enough for House passage.
Viet Shelton, DelBene’s spokesman, said reconciling the two parties’ vastly different plans for the food-stamp program necessarily meant no one got everything he or she wanted.
Speaking on the House floor before Wednesday’s vote, DelBene said she was disappointed some Americans will receive smaller food-stamp balances, but noted the bill ensures eligibility remains unchanged.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong