House Farm Bill Fails As Conservatives Revolt Over Immigration

May 18, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 11:55 pm

Updated at 6:21 p.m. ET

The House rejected a $867 billion farm bill on Friday — after spending days negotiating with key conservatives in an attempt to pass the bill without the support of Democrats.

The vote was 198-213. Every Democrat voted against the measure, as did 30 Republicans. Many of the GOP lawmakers are members of the House Freedom Caucus and voted no after failing to get concessions on spending and a future vote on immigration in exchange for their support.

Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told reporters after the vote that voters elected Republicans to rein in illegal immigration and lawmakers have failed to act.

"Some members have concerns about the farm bill. but that wasn't my main focus," Jordan said. "My main focus was making sure we do immigration policy right."

The failure was an embarrassment for House leaders, who tried to pressure their members to fall in line on the farm legislation. Leaders promised conservatives a chance to vote on a hard-line immigration bill in the coming weeks, but that did not satisfy the influential bloc.

Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said leaders believed they had the votes for the farm policy, but conservatives chose to wreak havoc anyway.

"We had enough members who were willing to vote yes on the farm bill," McHenry said. "[They] had a commitment on when we would vote on immigration but wanted to hijack the process to get an immigration vote before they actually fulfilled their pledge that they made to their constituents on the farm bill."

The future of the bill is uncertain. Republican leaders are discussing ways to bring it up again. A revote could hinge on whether GOP leaders agree to a vote on a controversial immigration bill that many Republican moderates oppose. Those members, many running for re-election in competitive districts, are pressing, instead, for a vote on a measure that gives a path to citizenship for children of undocumented workers.

In a statement, White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said President Trump "is disappointed in the result of today's vote, and hopes the House can resolve any remaining issues in order to achieve strong work requirements and support our nation's agricultural community."

On Thursday evening, Trump tweeted his support for the farm bill.

The Freedom Caucus had extra leverage in the talks because most Democrats oppose this farm bill because of changes to food stamps.

The farm bill is generally known as the biggest safety net for millions of farmers across the country. But it also includes the Supplemental Nutrition Program — known as SNAP or food stamps. Last year, 40 million people used the program, totaling about $70 billion in spending.

Republicans and Trump want strict work requirements for people who receive those benefits, a plan Democrats reject. That left House leaders searching for conservative votes.

But conservatives oppose the amount of spending on SNAP in the bill.

The food stamp fight turned the once-bipartisan safety-net package into another contentious political battle in the House. It also pits the House against the Senate, where Republicans are working with Democrats on a compromise bill. The top GOP senator crafting that chamber's version, Pat Roberts of Kansas, has already indicated he is starting from a different framework.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., followed through on a threat to hold up passage of the bill until the group can extract a vote on security-focused immigration legislation by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. His proposal has been opposed by Democrats and would have required passage on the strength of GOP votes alone — a level of support that GOP leaders insisted the Goodlatte bill does not have on the House floor.

And conservatives, like Meadows, have turned the legislation into a last-minute election-year opportunity. They want Republicans to deliver on their promise to cut government spending.

"You know, 76 percent of this farm bill has nothing to do with farms," Meadows said in a recent appearance on C-SPAN. "When you look at that, 24 percent of it actually is about farms and supporting our farmers."

But food stamps are in the farm bill because of politics. The program was added in the 1970s as a way to persuade urban lawmakers to vote for an expensive safety net for farmers. And for decades, it worked.

That coalition is at risk of crumbling this year after House Democrats all but abandoned negotiations. Last month at a hearing on the bill, Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, blamed Republicans for forcing Democrats out of the negotiations.

"I didn't walk away; we didn't walk away," Peterson said. "We were pushed away by an ideological fight I repeatedly warned the chairman not to start."

Peterson, of Minnesota, said he has worked with Republicans on every farm bill since the early 1990s. Following Friday's vote he said he was willing to work with Republicans on a bill, and deliver votes from Democrats, provided that food stamps are protected.

"If they will listen to me I can deliver a lot of Democrats on this bill," Peterson said. "If they listen to me. That's up to them. The ball is in their court."

But House Republicans had the backing of Trump on the food stamp provision. They wanted strict requirements that recipients who are healthy and able to work spend time searching for jobs — and getting training or volunteering.

And they say voters agree. Republicans point to polls from the right-leaning Foundation for Government Accountability. The group's vice president for federal affairs, Kristina Rasmussen, says the support crosses ideological lines.

"You see 7 out of 10 Democrats supporting these ideas," Rasmussen said in an interview. "Independents usually come in at 8 out of 10, Republicans 9 out of 10."

Support or no, this version of the bill would have been dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats have more sway.

"Regardless of what happens in the House, and I hope they can get something passed, the Senate is working toward a bipartisan bill because we have to get 60 votes," Roberts said prior to the vote.

The current farm law expires at the end of September — all but ensuring that the fight will continue right up until the next election.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis contributed to this report.

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House Republican leaders suffered an embarrassing loss today with the failure of the $867 billion farm bill. The policy behind the bill was widely supported by Republicans, and it had the backing of President Trump. But conservatives like Ohio Republican Jim Jordan voted against the bill. The no votes stemmed from a spat with party leaders over promising a vote on immigration. Here's Congressman Jordan.

JIM JORDAN: Some members have concerns with the farm bill. But that wasn't my main focus. My main focus is making sure we do immigration policy right.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is here to explain how the farm bill got tangled up in this immigration fight. Hi, Kelsey.


SHAPIRO: So we just heard Congressman Jordan say his vote did not have anything to do with the farm bill. Explain how an immigration fight caused the farm bill to fail?

SNELL: Honestly, this was kind of a terrible day for House Speaker Paul Ryan and his entire leadership team. This vote showed how weak their control is over members and of their own party. Jordan and the Freedom Caucus have been asking for a vote on immigration for some time. They want this hardline bill that would crack down on illegal immigration and add limitations for legal immigration, too. Leaders say that bill does not have the votes to pass, but they still promised anyway that the Freedom Caucus could have that vote. But Freedom Caucus doesn't care - part 'cause they want to prove to leaders that the leaders are out of touch and that they, you know, are not following what they promised voters. So that's how we wound up here. (Laughter) We are in this situation where the Freedom Caucus thinks that they can prove to leadership that they are more in touch with the base than leaders are.

SHAPIRO: Explain how this group of 30 people could have this much sway in a House of Representatives that includes 435 members.

SNELL: Yeah, that all comes down to a different fight over food stamp provisions in the bill. So there is this part of the bill called the Supplemental Nutrition Program. It's commonly known as food stamps. And Democrats didn't want to vote for the bill because Republicans were trying to put in these big, strict requirements for people who received the benefits. Now, Democrats not voting for the bill left it so that Republicans had a really narrow margin for getting something passed. And this gives Democrats more leverage down the line. And Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, knows it.

COLLIN PETERSON: If they will listen to me, I can deliver a lot of Democrats for this bill - if they'll listen. And that's up to them. The ball is in their court.

SHAPIRO: So Kelsey, it sounds like the political dynamics here are really changing...

SNELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...If the next version of the farm bill is going to have a lot of democratic input. What are the political repercussions here?

SNELL: So leaders could have pulled this bill, but they didn't. And that's because they wanted to embarrass the people who voted against it, these Republicans who come from largely agricultural districts. And they want - leaders want them to have to go home and answer for their vote. And they were really frustrated. Leaders are just mad.

I caught up with Congressman Patrick McHenry after the vote. He's on the leadership team in charge of counting votes and getting people in line behind legislation. He was clearly frustrated because leaders had already promised the Freedom Caucus that vote, like I already said. Here's what he said.

PATRICK MCHENRY: We had enough members that were willing to vote yes on the farm bill, that had a commitment on when we'd vote on immigration but wanted to hijack the process to get a immigration vote before they actually fulfilled their pledge that they made to their constituents on the farm bill.

SNELL: And leaders just don't have a lot of influence over these guys. But rank-and-file Republicans might be mad, which further muddies an already tense leadership race where Freedom Caucus people would like to get one of their own into future leadership after House Speaker Ryan leaves.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, Kelsey, you've reported on how much is at stake for farmers. The bill expires in September. What are the chances of a new one getting passed?

SNELL: Well, this shifts all of leverage over to the Senate, where they are working on their own bipartisan bill. And as we heard Collin Peterson say, he thinks he can deliver Democratic votes if they do something bipartisan.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell - thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.