By Emily Stephenson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional panel approved about $33 billion in cuts over 10 years from food stamp benefits, in a largely symbolic and highly partisan vote opposed by committee Democrats and by anti-poverty groups.
The cuts advanced by the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee on Wednesday would reduce spending on food stamps that help 46 million people buy food by $7.7 billion in the first year, by $19.7 billion in five years, and the balance in the next five years.
The cuts are expected to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But the vote by voice underscored Republicans' preference for domestic spending cuts over defense cuts or tax hikes as they try to avoid automatic cuts that take effect in January.
Rep. Jean Schmidt cited recent press reports of a Michigan lottery winner who remained on food stamps as an example of faults in the program. "There are those that have benefited from this that may not truly need it," said Schmidt, a Republican.
The committee's proposal to tighten rules for qualifying for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, and repeal a 2009 increase to the program's funding instead of reducing subsidies for farmers also could show Republican priorities for the next farm bill.
"I would contend this entire process is a waste of time," Representative Collin Peterson, the committee's top Democrat, said in opening remarks.
"Taking a meat ax to nutrition programs that feed millions of hard-working families in an effort to avoid defense cuts is not a serious way to achieve deficit reduction," he said.
AUTOMATIC CUTS LOOM
Food stamps and other federal spending are on the table as budget writers try to craft a plan that avoids about $98 billion in across-the-board, automatic cuts triggered by the failure of the debt-reducing "supercommittee" last year.
Committee members said the cuts would reduce projected costs by about 4 percent for SNAP. Enrollment in the food stamp program grew substantially during and after the recession, and Congress boosted its funding in the 2009 economic stimulus package.
Republicans on the committee said they did not want to hurt families that need assistance but that lax rules allow some people to use food stamps who do not really need it.
Chairman Frank Lucas said some states qualify all households receiving low-income assistance for SNAP instead of judging eligibility by income or assets. In others, he said, payments as part of a home energy assistance program count as income deductions that allow households to receive higher benefits.
"What I look at here is an attempt to find out who truly needs the assistance," Schmidt said.
But committee Democrats countered that the cuts would place the burden of debt reduction on programs for poor families.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to lawmakers on Monday asking that they preserve funding for domestic and international food aid. The nonprofit Food Research and Action Center said on its website on Wednesday that the restrictions could push up to 3 million people out of the food stamp program.
The committee focused on food stamp cuts even though Representative Paul Ryan's House-passed budget suggested $30 billion in savings over 10 years could come from rolling back direct payments to farmers and crop insurance.
Ryan's budget directed six committees to find $261 billion in 10-year savings, with the biggest share of the cuts in the hands of the agriculture committee. Farm supports such as subsidies are popular in farm states that will vote in November when the full House is up for re-election.
(Reporting By Emily Stephenson; Editing by Alden Bentley and Toni Reinhold)