How Food Stamps Killed the Farm Bill

Florida Rep. Steve Southerland's amendment made the bill unpalatable to most Democrats.

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The House of Representatives’ farm bill was crammed with so many questionable giveaways that watchdogs couldn’t decide which was the worst. In the end, however, it wasn’t sushi subsidies or millions of dollars of weather radio transmitters that killed the farm bill Thursday afternoon. It was a controversial amendment backed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

At 12:14 p.m., the House opened debate on an amendment introduced by Florida Republican Steve Southerland that would have allowed states to increase work requirements for citizens to receive food stamps. Shortly after, Cantor spoke on the floor in support of the amendment. While there were more than 100 amendments debated over the two days of deliberations, Southerland’s amendment was the first and only that prompted Cantor to take to the floor.

At 1:22 p.m., the Southerland amendment was approved in a near-party-line vote, 227 to 198. Only one Democrat went for the amendment, and only six Republicans went against. It was a partisan poison pill, the last amendment of the day. And it was enough to kill the measure.

At 1:54 p.m., the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, colloquially known as the farm bill, was defeated 234 to 195, with 24 Democrats backing the legislation and 62 Republicans voting against it. It was the last in a series of embarrassing defeats for the House Republican leadership, who have struggled for three years to corral the conservative wing of their conference.

After the vote, Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said, “The farm bill failed to pass the House today because the House Republicans could not control the extreme right wing of their party.” When asked if the Southerland amendment was specifically what sunk the bill, Liz Friedlander, a spokeswoman for Peterson, told TIME: “I think that’s fair to say.”

“We were over 40 and we ended up…at 24,” Peterson told the Hill.

Cantor blamed the Democrats. “I’m extremely disappointed that Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership have at the last minute chosen to derail years of bipartisan work on the Farm Bill and related reforms,” said Cantor in a statement. “This bill was far from perfect, but the only way to achieve meaningful reform, such as Congressman Southerland’s amendment reforming the food stamp program, was in conference.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hit back, blaming House Republicans for their inability to whip the vote. “What is happening on the floor today was major amateur hour,” said Pelosi, who passed a farm bill herself as speaker in 2007 with just 19 Republican votes at the time. “They didn’t get results and they put the blame on somebody else.”

Some outside conservatives cheered the defeat of the farm bill. “The lesson here is that when the American people are informed and engaged, we can get our country back on the right track,” Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint tweeted Thursday.

But the defeat disappointed farmers like Dee Vaughan, a Texan corn farmer, who told TIME he was “very disappointed. Farmers need the certainty of getting a bill passed. These one year extensions”–which is what Congress has been operating under for the past year since the five-year 2008 farm bill expired–“just don’t allow you to make the capital improvements you have to make from time to time.”

Before the final vote on the House floor, Republican Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the House Agriculture Committee Chairman, told his colleagues that he “can’t guarantee” that he could resurrect the bill this session, and implored his colleagues to vote with him. “Vote with me,” he said, his voice cracking. “And if you don’t, when you leave here they’ll just say it’s a dysfunctional body, a broken body, a dysfunctional institution. That’s not true.”