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.
But the two chambers are far apart on how much the $80 billion-a-year food stamp 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 one-in-seven 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.
Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas of California 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 Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts offered an amendment to do away with the cuts that was rejected by the panel. "Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever - we're failing our brothers and sisters here," McGovern said.
In the Senate committee meeting, Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York called votes for the program a moral statement.
Such deeply-held beliefs are likely to be on display when the full Senate takes up the bill next week and in the House later this summer. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, a Oklahoma Republican, has acknowledged he will have to appease all sides as he tries to get the bill passed, balancing calls from House conservatives to cut the program further with Senate Democrats who are reluctant to touch it.
"I expect it to come from all directions," Lucas said of the food stamp debate.
The House legislation would achieve the cuts partly by eliminating an eligibility category that requires automatic food stamp benefits when people sign up for certain other programs. It also would save dollars by targeting states that give people who don't have heating bills very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits.
Republicans argued that the cut is small relative to the size of the program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and that people who qualify for the aid could still sign up for it; they just wouldn't be automatically enrolled.
The Senate bill saves money in the food stamp program only by targeting the heating assistance dollars.
Last year more than 47 million people used the SNAP program with the cost more than doubling since 2008. The rolls rose rapidly because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus law.
Republicans criticized Obama in last year's presidential campaign for his expansion of the program, and many House conservatives have refused to consider a farm bill without cuts to food stamps, which make up about 80 percent of the bill's cost.
The House bill would cut around $4 billion a year from food aid and farm spending, while the Senate bill would trim roughly $2.4 billion. Those reductions include more than $600 million in yearly savings from across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year.
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