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GOP Loses Food Stamp Fight

After a sharp-elbowed debate, the House on Friday rebuffed a Republican attempt to prevent restoration of food stamp benefits to legal immigrants who were dropped from the rolls in the 1996 welfare reform law.

In a 289-120 vote, the House rejected an effort by Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., to strip the food stamp provisions from a $1.9 billion measure that also guarantees crop insurance to thousands of farmers and pays for agriculture research.

Solomon, chairman of the Rules Committee, and other House GOP leaders contended that restoring benefits to 250,000 legal immigrants amounted to a rollback of the welfare reform law.

"You vote yes on this bill, you are just repealing everything we did two years ago," Solomon said.

But farm-state lawmakers of both parties, concerned about chaos in the crop insurance program just as policies are being renewed, were joined by minority members and advocates for the poor in rejecting any move to divide the bill into pieces.

"There is no excuse for this nastiness," said Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio. "These are the neediest of immigrants. Why on Earth do we want to take away their food stamps?"

Added Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.: "This is a slap in the face to rural America."

Nearly 100 Republicans split with their leadership.

"We need to show that we care," said Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y. "Welfare reform has worked. But there were certain aspects of it, including food stamps, that went too far."

Cecilia Munoz, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic group, said GOP outreach efforts fall flat when Republicans take actions such as attempting to block immigrant food stamps.

"This makes people very, very angry," she said. "Actions speak louder than words."

The key vote came on a House rule that could have permitted the food stamp provisions to be separated from the rest of the measure. After the rule was rejected, Solomon said the measure would not be considered again until after a weeklong Memorial Day recess.

President Clinton and immigrant advocacy groups had sought to restore benefits to far more of the estimated 935,000 who lost them in 1996, but have agreed to accept the compromise as a down payment. The president had vowed to veto the bill without the food stamps and it passed the Senate 92-8 in April.

Targeted are the elderly, those under 18, the disabled and people who came to the United States to flee political or religious persecution. To qualify, those immigrants had to be living in the United States as of Aug. 22, 1996, the day the welfare reform bill became law.

In crop insurance, the measure would guarantee $470 million over five years to pay agents and companies for expenses and commissions. The money also would be placed in mandatory spending categories, meaning it would not have to compete with other priorities year after year.

Thbill would add $600 million over five years for agricultural research, stressing such areas as food safety and biotechnology, and increase five-year spending for rural development programs by $100 million.