The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In blow to GOP, House fails to pass massive farm bill in face of conservative Republican showdown

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday expresses support for the House Agriculture Committee’s work on the farm bill.  (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A sweeping farm bill failed in the House on Friday in a blow to GOP leaders who were unable to placate conservative lawmakers demanding commitments on immigration.

The House leadership put the bill on the floor gambling it would pass despite unanimous Democratic opposition. They negotiated with members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus up to the last minutes.

But their gamble failed. The vote was 213 to 198, with 30 Republicans joining 183 Democrats in defeating the bill.

The outcome exposed what is becoming an all-out war within the House GOP over immigration, a divisive fight the Republicans did not want to have heading into midterm elections in November that will decide control of Congress.

The bill’s collapse also highlight the splits within the GOP conference that have bedeviled House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and will be certain to dog the top lieutenants in line to replace him, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

With moderate Republicans maneuvering to force a vote on legislation offering citizenship to some younger immigrants who arrived in the country as children, conservatives revolted. The farm bill became a bargaining chip as they lobbied leadership for a vote on a hard-line immigration bill.

Leaders tried to come up with a compromise, but 11th-hour negotiations, offers and counteroffers failed. McCarthy and Scalise will face a share of the blame for the failure, and their fortunes in the race to replace Ryan next year could suffer accordingly.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said on May 17 that a discharge petition to force debate on immigration bills would "guarantee that nothing goes into law." (Video: Reuters, Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters)

The farm bill itself became practically a sideshow, despite its importance to agriculture and the significant changes it would institute to food stamp programs.

Six things to watch for in the House farm bill, from food-stamp work requirements to school lunch

On immigration, Scalise described a deal that would ensure a vote on a conservative immigration bill from Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), while also allowing moderate Republicans the opportunity to negotiate on legislation that could win the support of President Trump and resolve the status of immigrants who face losing protections offered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

“We came to an agreement that I think gives everybody what they want,” Scalise said ahead of the farm-bill vote. “That’s a vote on Goodlatte-McCaul as well as an opportunity to try to work with the president on an alternative that can pass on DACA. We want to solve the DACA problem and secure the border, and I still think there’s a path to get there working with the president.”

The solution may eventually emerge, but it did not do so in time to save the farm bill Friday.

Goodlatte-McCaul bill authorizes construction of a border wall, cracks down on “sanctuary cities” that protect immigrants against federal immigration authorities and provides for three-year temporary guest work permits that do not offer a chance at citizenship. Leaders and conservatives agree that it does not have the votes to pass the House, but nonetheless conservatives want to vote on it.

The farm bill itself broke open partisan House divisions as Democrats abandoned negotiations with Republicans over the food stamp changes, which would require adults to spend 20 hours per week working or participating in a state-run training program as a condition to receive benefits. Democrats argue that a million or more people would end up losing benefits, because most states do not have the capacity to set up the training programs required.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the legislation as “cruel” and argued that with the proposed changes to food stamps, “Republicans are taking food out of the mouths of families struggling to make ends meet.”

Republicans contend the food stamp changes are a reasonable approach that would help move able-bodied adults from poverty to work. “Our bill goes shoulder to shoulder with recipients to help get them the training and education they need to attain a job that can provide for them and their families,” said Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.).

They’re the think tank pushing for welfare work requirements. Republicans say they’re experts. Economists call it ‘junk science.’

The House farm bill would have been a non-starter anyway in the Senate, which is writing its own farm bill. Any legislation that ultimately makes it to Trump’s desk will have to look more like the version in the Senate, where bipartisan support will be necessary for anything to pass and there is not sufficient support for the food-stamp changes.

Trump had tweeted his support for the House bill late Thursday, writing: “Tomorrow, the House will vote on a strong Farm Bill, which includes work requirements. We must support our Nation’s great farmers!”

The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, and the legislation would have reauthorized numerous programs and policies. In addition to food stamps, flash points included an extension of supports for the sugar program, which a coalition of conservative lawmakers, backed by outside free-market groups, tried unsuccessfully to get rid of in an amendment defeated Thursday.

The legislation also would have extended the Agriculture Department’s subsidy program that compensates farmers when average crop prices fall below certain levels — and expanded it by widening who counts as a “farmer,” for subsidy purposes.

Conaway pleaded for the legislation before the vote. “Times are not good right now in the heartland. Many of our nation’s farmers and ranchers, who have been struggling under the weight of a five-year recession, are just one bad year away from being forced out of business,” he said. “And in the face of these serious challenges, the last thing they need is the uncertainty of a prolonged debate over the 2018 farm bill.”

Caitlin Dewey contributed to this report.