By Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers have reached an agreement on the Farm Bill that drops a proposal to tighten food stamps restrictions backed by President Donald Trump, and are looking to vote on it this week, according to congressional staffers.
The agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the crucial piece of legislation caps a months-long bitter debate, and offers a spot of financial certainty to farmers suffering from the impact of the U.S. trade war with China. Programs covered by the bill include crop subsidies and support to growers seeking access to export markets.
The final text shows Republicans in the lame duck Congress had to walk back from some demands, the biggest being the Trump-backed proposal to impose stricter worker requirements for recipients of food stamps.
That debate had delayed the legislation beyond the most recent version’s expiration in September, and was finalised only after Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives in the November midterm congressional elections.
Food stamps, as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP) is known, are used by more than 40 million Americans, or about 12 percent of the total U.S. population.
The move to tighten eligibility criteria failed to garner enough support in the Senate, and Trump blamed Democrats opposed to the tighter restrictions for stalling the bill.
“It was certainly a compromise,” a staffer at the House Agricultural Committee said. “We’ve had significant differences in virtually every title and had robust debate about them.”
China, normally the top buyer of U.S. farm produce, has been absent from the market after the imposition of tariffs due to the trade war between Washington and Beijing.
The bill will extend the eligibility for crop subsidies to nephews, nieces and cousins of a farmer, which is likely to escalate criticism over what is already seen as a too-broad definition of who qualifies for the funds.
At the moment, a farmer’s immediate family can be eligible for crop subsidies up to $125,000 per person based on “active engagement.” Opponents say such language is vague and could apply to people who do not even live on the farm and only carry out management roles.
The administration has also been criticized because a portion, albeit small, of the farm aid designed to offset the losses of farmers from the imposition of tariffs ended up with people living in cities who spent little time at a farm.
A congressional staffer defended the move. “Farming is no longer about being on top of a tractor,” he said, adding that making more family members eligible for aid could help attract younger generations to farming business.
Committee staffers expect the conference report to be out later on Monday or Tuesday. The final bill could move to the House floor for a vote as early as Wednesday, potentially followed by a vote at the Senate on Thursday.
Once the votes are completed, the bill goes to Trump for final signature.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Leslie Adler)