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Heck cites frustration in vote against farm bill his party endorsed

Updated Thursday, June 20, 2013 | 3:47 p.m.

Nevada Rep. Joe Heck joined 61 of his Republican colleagues Thursday in voting to defeat the GOP-endorsed farm bill, quashing efforts to make massive cuts to the food stamp program.

Heck said Thursday his vote against the bill was prompted by frustrations with the food stamp issue and what he called inefficient reform in farm subsidies.

“In its current form, the farm bill is too big, too bloated and too outdated,” Heck said in a statement. He had wanted to see reforms in agricultural subsidies, “such as sugar subsidy reform that would have been beneficial to businesses in Nevada's 3rd (Congressional) District,” Heck said.

The sugar beet industry in Nevada, however, has not been operational since 1966.

Nevada Democrats had railed against the House bill because of its $20.5 billion cut in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as the food stamp program.

Heck said he also objected to the bill's SNAP provisions, but not for the same reason as Nevada’s Democrats: He doesn’t think food stamps should be part of a debate about agriculture.

“An issue of this magnitude deserves to be debated, considered and voted on as a separate bill, not as part of the farm bill,” Heck said in the statement. He added that he thought there was a “lack of balance and real reform in addressing the SNAP program that would both rein in costs while ensuring food security for those in need.”

Food stamps make up about 70 percent of the Department of Agriculture’s budget.

Proposed cuts to the program would disproportionately affect families, as a large portion of the cut would have come the SNAP “categorical eligibility” designation that gives families with modest assets — such as a car in a rural area — the ability to qualify. Normally, anyone with more than $2,000 in savings or assets cannot qualify for food assistance.

But the bill got worse, in Democrats’ eyes, as the day went on, especially when the House voted to approve an amendment that would have allowed states to enact work requirements to be eligible for food stamps.

Heck voted for that amendment, which passed 227-198, just a half hour before voting to kill the overall bill.

Democrats crowed over the bill’s defeat.

“Today’s vote is a victory for the working families of Nevada,” Rep. Steven Horsford said in a statement after the vote on the bill. "The Farm Bill would have increased hunger, hardship and food insecurity, and I am glad it failed.”

The failure of the House bill raised questions about how ably Speaker John Boehner can control his caucus. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid — whose chamber passed a farm bill with far narrower cuts in the food stamp program this month — said Thursday’s vote showed the House should stop trying to strike out on its own, and just follow the Senate’s lead.

“We would be happy to go to conference if the House were able to pass its own farm bill, but today’s failure proves that this is unlikely to happen,” Reid said. “On nearly every major issue, the House has rightly accepted the bipartisan work of the Senate. ... It’s time for Speaker Boehner to take the same approach that has proven successful in the past and allow the House to pass the bipartisan work of the Senate.”

Reid’s words may ring well past the farm bill. On Thursday, the Senate seemed to have hit upon a breakthrough in immigration negotiations that may guarantee broad bipartisan support for an issue that has dogged Congress for decades, while bipartisan cooperation over immigration is quickly fraying.

Boehner, however, is adamant he will not follow the Senate’s lead. Reid believes the House may be forced to take up the Senate’s bill on immigration, as he now says it should on the farm bill.

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