By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday threatened to veto a Republican-written bill nearing a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives that would cut food stamps for the poor by $40 billion over a decade and end benefits for an estimated 4 million people.
Representatives are likely to vote on the bill on Thursday. A close vote is expected. The White House threat capped a day of high-decibel opposition by congressional Democrats and antihunger groups who called the cuts harsh and heartless.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says the food stamps program in its current form is a unaffordable burden on middle-class families and can be pruned while still helping "those who truly need it." Enrollment in the food stamps program has doubled and its cost has tripled since 2004.
In a statement, the White House said lawmakers should instead cut farm and crop insurance subsidies rather than separate millions of people from "one of our nation's strongest defenses against hunger and poverty."
"These cuts would affect a broad array of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, including working families with children, senior citizens, veterans, and adults who are still looking for work," the White House said.
It was the second time since June that the White House has threatened to veto large cuts in food stamps, the main federal program against hunger.
With Republicans holding a 33-seat advantage in the House, Democrats need to persuade around 20 Republicans to join them to kill the bill. Conversely, Republicans need a party-line vote to prevail. They did that on July 11 roll call to single out food stamps for cuts.
The Republican bill would limit able-bodied adults to three months of benefits in a three-year period unless they worked part-time or were in the workfare or job-training programs. Waivers are allowed now during times of high unemployment. The bill would also end a provision allowing benefits to people with assets slightly larger than usually permitted.
Food stamps have been the overriding issue for more than a year on passage of a five-year, $500 billion farm bill. The Senate has voted for $4 billion in cuts. Tea Party-influenced Republicans in the House rebelled at a proposed $20 billion in cuts, leading to Cantor's package of $40 billion in reforms.
A near-record 47.76 million people, about 85 percent of them children, elderly or disabled, received food stamps at latest count in June. Benefits average $1.47 per meal per person with an aggregate price tag of $78 billion last year.
Enrollment surged by 20 million people during the 2007-08 economic downturn and has remained high, the result of slow wage growth and high long-term joblessness, say antihunger groups.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott. Editing by Ros Krasny and Andre Grenon)