A sign announces the acceptance of electronic benefit transfer cards at… (Rich Pedroncelli, AP )
WASHINGTON — A revolt among rank-and-file Republicans helped kill the farm bill in the House on Thursday, the latest vote to reflect the influence of conservative groups that have often been at odds with the chamber's GOP leadership.
More than a quarter of the Republicans joined with most Democrats to defeat the nearly $1-trillion bill to reauthorize farm subsidies and nutrition programs, legislation that has traditionally been bipartisan.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said last week that he supported the measure despite a few objections because it would institute some needed reforms.
But prominent outside forces, including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, urged Republicans to defeat it. Both groups oppose farm subsidies, but focused their objections on the cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which made up most of the price tag.
The vote underscores the challenge House leaders face in moving major legislation, such as an immigration overhaul. Other significant legislation that has split Republicans, such as Superstorm Sandy relief and a debt-limit increase, has needed support from Democrats to pass.
Before the farm bill vote failed, 195 to 234, Boehner acknowledged the delicate position he was in. "My job isn't to try to impose my will on 434 other members. My job is to try to facilitate a discussion and build bipartisan support," he said.
The Club for Growth cheered Thursday's vote as one of its most significant victories to date, saying it was a testament to the "new generation of conservatives in Congress."
"The food stamp program is out of control," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who rode the tea party wave to election in 2010. "It has grown 430% since 2001. And this bill did little if anything to curtail that out-of-control spending."
The Club for Growth has achieved considerable sway over the rank and file because it has spent money to support conservatives in primary challenges. Incumbent Republicans, many in districts that are more conservative since redistricting, now increasingly fear the threat of a primary challenge more than the general election. Both conservative groups said they would use Thursday's vote in considering whether to support incumbents in Republican primaries.
At the same time, fewer Democrats remain in the House who represent districts with sizable rural populations. Just 24 Democrats supported the farm bill. Most Democrats protested the measure, saying that cuts to the food stamp program, known as SNAP, were too deep and would hurt low-income families.
Republican aides faulted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who they say undermined a pledge from the Agriculture Committee's top Democrat to deliver 40 votes. But even that number would have put the measure shy of passage.
Still, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the Democratic leadership chose at the "last minute" to "derail years of bipartisan work" on the issue.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the Democratic whip, blamed the Republican leadership for failing to prevent the adoption of a "poison pill" amendment to make further changes to SNAP. He engaged Cantor in a tense and lengthy exchange on the House floor until Cantor ended it by announcing that the House would adjourn until Monday.
Democrats in Congress delighted in what they said was an embarrassment for the House leadership.
"What is happening on the floor today was a demonstration of major amateur hour. They didn't get results, and they put the blame on somebody else," Pelosi said.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said it was "incredible" that Boehner could lose more than 60 Republicans on the vote. "I think the speaker has to realize that he can find a pathway forward if he will work with Democrats," he said. "But if all he's going to do is cater to the tea party fringe in the House, this kind of thing is going to keep happening."
The Democratic-controlled Senate has already passed its own version of the farm bill with Republican support, 66 to 27.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, called on Boehner to bring that bill to the floor. "It's up to the House to find a way to stand up for rural America … and to do it in a bipartisan way that can get the votes necessary to pass," she said.
The Senate also passed a farm bill in the last Congress, but the House never brought a plan to the floor for a vote. The last farm bill to emerge from Congress passed in 2008.
It's unclear what will happen next. If lawmakers fail to take up the entire farm bill, it's possible they could approve funding for individual programs for a year, a practice they have done in the past.