House leaders plan to vote Friday on an $867-billion farm bill — and they spent the days leading to this moment negotiating with key conservatives, aiming to ensure that the bill could pass without the support of Democrats.
These key conservatives, members of the House Freedom Caucus, are threatening to vote against the bill. They want concessions on spending and a future vote on immigration in exchange for their support.
The future of the bill, now, could hinge on whether or not GOP leaders agree to votes on a controversial immigration bill that many Republican moderates oppose. Those members, many running for re-election in competitive districts, are pressing, instead, for a vote on a measure that gives a path to citizenship for children of undocumented workers.
Thursday evening, President Trump tweeted his support.
The Freedom Caucus has extra leverage in the talks because most Democrats oppose this farm bill — due to changes to food stamps.
The farm bill is generally known the biggest safety net for millions of farmers across the country. But it also includes the Supplemental Nutrition Program — known as SNAP or food stamps. Last year, 40 million people used the program, totaling about $70 billion in spending.
Republicans and President Trump want strict work requirements for people who receive those benefits — a plan Democrats reject. That leaves House leaders searching for conservative votes to avoid a failure on the House floor.
Conservatives also oppose the amount of spending in the bill on SNAP.
The food stamp fight turned the once-bipartisan safety-net package into another contentious political battle in the House. It also pits the House against the Senate where Republicans are working with Democrats on a compromise bill. The top GOP senator crafting that chamber's version, Pat Roberts of Kansas, has already indicated he's starting from a different framework.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., is leading the group of conservatives threatening to hold up passage of the bill until they can extract a vote on security-focused immigration legislation by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. His proposal is opposed by Democrats and would require passage on the strength of GOP votes alone — a level of support that GOP leaders insist the Goodlatte bill does not have on the House floor.
And conservatives, like Meadows, have turned the legislation into a last minute election-year opportunity. They want Republicans to deliver on their promise to cut government spending.
"You know, 76 percent of this farm bill has nothing to do with farms," Meadows said in a recent appearance on CSPAN. "When you look at that, 24 percent of it actually is about farms and supporting our farmers."
But food stamps are in the farm bill because of politics. The program was added in the 1970s as a way to convince big city lawmakers to vote for an expensive safety net for farmers. And for decades it worked.
That coalition is at risk of crumbling this year after House Democrats all but abandoned negotiations. Last month at a hearing on the bill Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, blamed Republicans for forcing Democrats out of the negotiations.
"I didn't walk away, we didn't walk away," Peterson said. "We were pushed away by an ideological fight I repeatedly warned the chairman not to start."
Peterson said he's worked with Republicans on every farm bill since the early 1990s but, this time, he can't promise that a single Democrat will vote for this bill.
But House Republicans have the backing of President Trump on the food stamp provision. They want strict requirements that recipients who are healthy and able to work spend time searching for jobs — and getting training or volunteering.
And they say voters agree. Republicans point to polls from the right-leaning Foundation for Government Accountability. The group's Vice President for Federal Affairs Kristina Rasmussen says the support crosses ideological lines.
"You see seven out of ten Democrats supporting these ideas," Rasmussen said in an interview. "Independents usually come in at 8-out-of-10, Republicans 9-out-of-10."
Support or no, this version of the bill is dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats have more sway.
"Regardless of what happens in the House, and I hope they can get something passed, the Senate is working towards a bipartisan bill because we have to get 60 votes," Roberts said.
The current farm bill expires at the end of September — all but assuring that the fight will continue right up until the next election.
Susan Davis contributed to this report.