House Republicans agree that Congress needs to make major reforms to the country's food stamp program, but deep divisions within the caucus about the scope of those changes could put the entire process in jeopardy of ever coming to fruition.
Roughly 47 million Americans rely on food assistance programs, a number that has ballooned since the recession took hold six years ago. A report by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says even as the economy has slowly improved, job growth has been weak leaving families to rely on the program.
Republican lawmakers say it's not all the economy: more lenient eligibility requirements, fraud and abuse have led to the widespread spike in food stamp reliance.
Republicans have privately and publicly advocated for a laundry list of reforms ranging from requiring food stamp recipients to hold jobs or be drug tested before they can enroll in the program to simply cutting the program's funding, but conservatives have yet to rally around one specific plan.
"How draconian is it that we ask able bodied individuals, working age, physically, mentally, psychologically able to produce, to be active, and that they either work, train for work, are looking for work or volunteering. I mean they can be delivering Meals on Wheels," says Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., who authored the original farm bill amendment that added a work requirement as a prerequisite for receiving food stamps.
While lawmakers have made reforms to the food stamp programs through the farm bill since the 1970s, the House, currently unable to agree on food stamp cuts in the context of a farm bill, actually separated the bills earlier this month.
Now, many say they are unsure when or even if, the House will be able to broker a deal to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"I see no indication that is going to happen before recess," says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. "There has been no discussion amongst the entire caucus of how to get to 218 [votes] unless the leadership gets engaged and starts whipping for 218, then you can guarantee the food stamp bill will never pass."
If the House does not pass a separate nutrition bill, that does not mean food stamps cease to exist. The program is actually funded through appropriations bills and will continue to exist in its current form.
The House and the Senate, which passed a farm bill and nutrition title in one comprehensive bill, have yet to begin conferencing because the Senate is still waiting for a nutrition program, but House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., will push to move ahead with the conference in August even if the House is still divided on food stamps.
Lucas and other Republicans have said that if they fail to bring their ideas to the table soon, Republicans will see much more modest reforms than they initially hoped for.
"If we end up in conference and it comes back with a food stamp title and the House does not have a position, then we weakened our hand," Huelskamp says.