House to consider massive farm bill that would require more food stamp recipients to work

Arm-twisting. Heated negotiations. Legislative threats.

The lead-up to a Friday vote in the House of Representatives on a massive farm bill has become a messy battle wrought with fights over sugar prices, food assistance programs and now an unrelated but dramatic clash over an issue that has for years proved exceedingly divisive across the Republican Party: immigration.

With Democrats already vowing to oppose the bill, House Republicans will need to pass it with only GOP votes, but it was still unclear Wednesday night whether they had support within their own ranks to do it.

The five-year farm bill was the primary focus of the GOP’s weekly meeting Wednesday morning, according to members who attended. Leaders were still trying to assuage concerns by conservatives concerned with the bill’s assistance to the country’s sugar industry.

The vast majority of the bill’s funding addresses food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 who don’t have minor children must work or enroll in a training program for 20 hours a week to receive benefits for more than three months every three years. About 3.5 million of the roughly 41 million people enrolled in SNAP are subject to this provision.

The legislation would require those in their 50s to work and would extend the mandate to parents with school-age children, starting in fiscal 2021. (Most working-age adults who are not disabled or pregnant must currently register for work, accept a job if offered or maintain their current employment if they are working.)

This could double the number of people subject to work requirements, as well as reduce enrollment by roughly 1 million over a decade, according to Republican staff.

It would also mandate recipients to work or participate in a training program for a minimum of 25 hours a week starting in fiscal 2026. And, the legislation would invest $1 billion annually in SNAP Employment & Training programs and guarantee every enrollee a slot.

Those who fail to meet the criteria could be locked out for a year the first time they fail to meet the requirements and for three years for subsequent violations, unless they come into compliance.

The bill will also make it harder for some low-income folks to become eligible for food stamps by qualifying for other government assistance programs, a practice in use in more than 40 states. And it tightens the criteria for states to request waivers from the mandate.

RELATED: House GOP bill would lock the poor out of food stamps if they don’t work

The 641-page bill also addresses a range of issues related to agriculture, such as livestock disaster programs, conservation, feral swine, farm loan programs and broadband services in rural areas, just to name a few.

Given that the Senate is working on its own version of a farm bill — one that has a less stringent approach on SNAP — it’s a foregone conclusion that the House bill, should it pass, won’t be the final say on the matter, with a possible House-Senate conference looming to hash out the significant differences.

Meanwhile, another fight is threatening to derail the House farm bill, as conservatives explored a strategy that would involve withholding support for the farm bill to get their desired outcome on a separate immigration battle.

At the core of the issue is a brewing fight over a discharge petition, or measure that can bypass the traditional legislative procedures if it gets enough signatures. It’s a rarely successful procedure being used by a group of moderates that could force a vote on legislation to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. If the moderates get enough Republicans to sign on — and they were close as of Wednesday night — it would trigger a floor debate on four competing bills. Whichever bill gets the most votes will then head to the Senate.

RELATED: Who has signed the DACA discharge petition

While conservatives would get a vote on their preferred bill, which was authored by Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, they still feel the process is stacked to favor one of the other bills, which has more bipartisan support and would likely get more votes.

So members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are angling to get a separate floor vote on the Goodlatte bill as soon as possible, in the hopes of killing the discharge petition on the theory the bill can’t be brought to the floor in both situations. But a senior GOP aide said the plan likely wouldn’t work, and no vote on the Goodlatte bill could ultimately kill the discharge petition — without the support of the petition backers themselves.

It’s far from clear how serious the threat is at this point or what leadership will do.

“Well, there’s not enough votes for the farm bill right now,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told reporters leaving a meeting with the top five GOP leaders in the House.

“It’s kind of all connected at the moment,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry leaving the same meeting. “It doesn’t seem like an ag bill can move until we get this immigration issue worked out satisfactorily.”

Some Republicans were skeptical of the strategy.

“I don’t know why I would want to withhold my vote on something that helps take people out of poverty and gets them into prosperity,” said Texas Rep. Bill Flores, referring to the farm bill’s work requirements in SNAP. “It’s just not good conservative policy.”

Rep. Jeff Denham, the California Republican leading efforts to push the moderate approach with the discharge petition, only said he was “confident” the conservatives’ strategy was “not going to work.”

“It would be disappointing to see an unrelated bill get caught up in this as well,” Denham said, outlaying a counter strategy that would involve a procedural vote. “There are a number of us that could vote against the farm bill as well, and they could certainly try to take down a rule. I think it’s the wrong way, we are elected to solve issues, not try to tear them down.”