By MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) -- House Republicans are preparing legislation that would cut food stamps by as much as $4 billion annually in an effort to downsize a program that many conservatives say has become too bloated in recent years.
The head of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, says a small group of Republicans, including GOP leaders, have agreed to try to advance the legislation as early as next month. It is certain to face strong opposition from the Democratic Senate and President Barack Obama, who have opposed major cuts to the program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The measure would reduce the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program by as much as 5 percent. House conservatives want major cuts as SNAP has doubled in cost since 2008.
Reps. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, two Republicans who helped design the bill, said the legislation would find the savings by tightening eligibility standards and imposing new work requirements. It would also likely try to reduce the rolls by requiring drug testing and barring convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles from receiving food stamps.
All of those provisions were included in a farm bill defeated on the House floor in June, though several, including the work requirements, were added by amendment. The original farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee would have cut food stamps by about $2 billion, but conservatives revolted against the bill even after adding additional savings through amendments, saying the cuts weren't high enough.
After the farm bill defeat, Republican leaders split the farm bill in two and passed a bill in July that included only farm programs. They promised a food stamp bill to come later, with deeper cuts.
The Republicans said the exact cost of the bill isn't yet known, but they are estimating the cuts would be around $4 billion annually.
A farm bill passed by the Senate in June keeps the food and farm programs together and cuts food stamps by about $400 million a year, or about half a percent. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the original House cuts -- about half of what Republicans are now proposing -- were unacceptable.
The White House supported the Senate bill but had threatened a veto of the House bill. Lucas hinted that the differences are so "huge and dramatic" between the Senate bill and what the House is proposing, that the White House may need to get involved, something the Obama administration has so far declined to do.
"This may be one of those issues that may need some guidance from on high," Lucas said.
First, Republicans have to get the votes to pass the bill in the House. That could be difficult as Democrats will be united in opposition.
Stutzman said he thinks the issue will play well with their constituents when members return to their districts in August. The Republicans say they are trying to focus on the policies, not the number of dollars that would be cut.
"Most people will agree that if you are an able bodied adult without any kids you should find your way off food stamps," Stutzman said, referring to proposed work requirements. "I don't think we will find much disagreement on this."
Noem agreed, saying that talking about policies and not just dollars "shows that you really care about adding integrity into the program."
Still, she said, making cuts to the program is a "huge culture change" not only for Democrats but also for some Republicans who have a lot of food stamp recipients in their districts.
"That's all a big pill to swallow for some of them," she said.