Under pressure from farm-state Republicans, House leaders on Friday abandoned a campaign promise to disband the food stamp program that helps 27 million Americans buy groceries.
The decision to preserve food stamps as a federal program comes a day after a House committee voted to repeal several other federal nutrition programs, including school lunches, and return the money to the states in block grants.
Farm-state Republicans had fought hard to keep food stamps, a $27-billion program that serves 11 million households, at the federal level. They promised reforms that would tighten eligibility and cut the illegal trafficking, fraud and errors that drain an estimated $3 billion a year from the program.
Under the GOP plan, which could go to the House Agriculture Committee for a vote early next month, low-income Americans who meet the eligibility requirements would continue to be guaranteed a monthly allotment of food stamps.
The Clinton Administration applauded the decision, saying the program has helped feed poor people for 30 years.
"It gets food to people who need it. It's important that it be retained and reformed," said Ellen Haas, undersecretary of agriculture in charge of food, nutrition and consumer services. "The Administration is ready to work with Congress to achieve that."
The decision to preserve food stamps means that food benefits will continue to be available to poor Americans affected by other pieces of the GOP welfare reform plan: the unmarried teen-age mothers who would be denied cash aid and families kicked off welfare after reaching a five-year time limit.
Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said food stamps would nevertheless be subject to some type of spending cap.
But, he said Friday, the Republicans agreed that "there should be some form of federal safety net." And for families going through the welfare reform process, "this would be the final safety net."
Food stamps are considered the ultimate social safety net today. They feed single people and married couples, children and the elderly, the unemployed and the working poor, the healthy and the disabled.
But unlike other welfare programs, food stamp supporters include an influential sector of the national economy: grocery stores, farmers and agriculture businesses.
The GOP's "contract with America" proposed folding food stamps into a block grant with other federal food and nutrition programs, with the money returned to the states. The plan also sought to end the automatic guarantee of benefits for poor Americans.
The contract's welfare plan was later changed to create two separate nutrition block grants, one for school meals and another for younger children, including those in child care, and pregnant and nursing women.