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December 23, 2014

Hoyer Doubts Divided GOP Will Bring Farm Bill, Background Checks to Floor

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., Tuesday said he’s skeptical that House Republican leaders will proceed this summer with two major pieces of legislation — a farm bill and a firearms background check bill.

He said the farm bill remains too controversial within the Republican Conference to be cleared for floor action, despite the fact that Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, on Monday pledged his support — along with that of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. — for bringing up the measure later this month under an open rule.

The Senate passed its farm bill Monday night. Hoyer, speaking at his weekly news conference, said the Senate measure is more in line with policies House Democrats will support, particularly because it would cut only about $4 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and others said the measure would only reduce improper payments, not legitimate benefits.

The House Agriculture Committee’s bill, meanwhile, would cut $20.5 billion from SNAP over a decade, while boosting, in Hoyer’s words, “assistance to wealthy conglomerate farmers.”

“Your guess, at this point in time, is as good as mine as to whether it’s gonna come to the floor,” Hoyer said, “because it’s very controversial, in the Republican Conference as well, and to some degree for some of the reasons I raised.”

While some Republicans agree that the cuts to SNAP in the House bill are too extreme, other members of the House GOP insist that the cuts don’t go far enough.

On Tuesday afternoon, 25 House Republicans, led by Senate hopeful Paul Broun of Georgia, sent a letter to Boehner and Cantor requesting the elimination of all funding for SNAP and other nutrition programs from the House’s farm bill.

The letter, backed by Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity, reads:

While this legislation is said to authorize spending related to federal agriculture policy, nearly 80 percent of the Farm Bill concerns nutrition assistance programs. … We believe that this trend has caused Farm Bill reauthorization to become a battle of competing interests, and it represents a major reason why reauthorization of the Farm Bill has been unsuccessful thus far.

The House last year was unable to bring the farm bill to the floor for a vote. Majority Republicans couldn’t assure there would be enough support on their side to move the measure to passage. Some programs within the farm bill were reauthorized as part of the larger package to avert the fiscal cliff.

A contentious committee markup foreshadowed the likely floor debate, as reported by CQ Roll Call’s Ellyn Ferguson.

Hoyer was even more pessimistic about GOP leadership’s commitment to bringing to the floor a bill to require background checks to purchase certain firearms. ”I’m very doubtful,” he said.

He said Boehner’s plans to meet on Wednesday with families of the victims killed at last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., shouldn’t be seen as a change of heart.

“I think he’s an empathetic person … he’s not a hard-hearted person,” Hoyer said by way of offering a rationale for the Washington-based meeting. “It shows respect for them, and he will listen to them, but I don’t think they will move him to action.”

Earlier this year, the Senate was unable to garner the necessary votes to adopt legislation that was carefully negotiated between Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va. Reid has indicated that he would try to bring the bill back to the floor again, which Hoyer said heartened him somewhat.

Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, declined to address Hoyer’s predictions. He told CQ Roll Call in a statement that “Speaker Boehner’s heart goes out to the victims of this senseless tragedy, and their families. He wants to hear their stories and talk about ways to reduce the culture of violence in our country.”

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