ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
It used to be that farm bills moved through Congress with ease, passing with bipartisan support. Not anymore. Today, the House voted down a five-year multibillion dollar farm and nutrition assistance bill, and the vote wasn't even close. Two hundred thirty-four Democrats and Republicans said no.
NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith joins us from Capitol Hill to walk us through what happened. And, Tamara, first of all, was this defeat a surprise? Was the bill expected to pass?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Earlier today, aides seemed pretty confident. But, you know, it had always been a fragile situation. There were a bunch of Republicans refusing to support it because they felt like it was too much of a giveaway to farmers and didn't cut enough from the food stamp program. And then they would need Democrats because Republicans were dropping off. But Democrats didn't like the $20 billion in food stamp cuts over the next decade. The thought was that maybe 40 or so Democrats would take one for the team and support the bill, anyway.
Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, went to the floor just before the vote and basically pled with his colleagues, you know, just pass this bill so that they could advance it to a conference committee.
REPRESENTATIVE FRANK LUCAS: Whether you believe the bill has too much reform or not enough, or you believe it cuts too much or it doesn't cut enough, we have to move this document forward to achieve a common goal: to meet the needs of our citizens.
KEITH: But his pleas didn't work. Sixty Republicans voted no and 15 of those Democratic votes that had been promised dropped off because of two amendments that passed late in the process.
BLOCK: Two amendments. What were they?
KEITH: They were both actually favored by leaders - Republican leaders. One was strongly supported by Speaker John Boehner, and it would have gotten rid of a dairy price support program that he hated. But the dairy lobby told members it would make milk prices rise - passed, anyway. And then the other amendment was supported by majority leader Eric Cantor. And it would have created a pilot program allowing states to create work requirements for food stamp recipients, so kind of making it like the welfare-to-work program.
The top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson from Minnesota, said this was just too much for his members to take. And he said he couldn't blame them for deciding at the last minute to change their votes.
REPRESENTATIVE COLLIN PETERSON: But we warned people. You know, I mean, you take things too far and sometimes it blows up on you.
KEITH: And it absolutely blew up. But Eric Cantor's people came out almost immediately and blamed Democrats for this bill going down, for failing to supply the votes they had promised.
BLOCK: That's interesting. I was looking at a comment from the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi. She called this another day in the amateur hour of the Republican Congress.
Tamara, explain this. In recent decades, farm bills have been slam dunks. They got the votes of Democrats, who support food stamps, and also rural Republicans, who support farm aid. So what happened here?
KEITH: That marriage has clearly fallen apart. And part of it is that these very conservative groups, like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, have called for no votes on the farm bill. And rural state - farm state Republicans, who used to be automatic votes, are now much more fiscally conservative and perhaps listening to these groups and voting no. And then Democrats are standing firm and saying they aren't willing to take any cuts at all to the food stamp program.
BLOCK: Tamara, with this bill now defeated, what happens?
KEITH: The interesting thing is - the irony that people are talking about is that you end up with the old program, which includes direct payments to farmers and none of the reforms to the food stamp program that Republicans wanted and none of the deficit reduction that this promised.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tamara Keith on Capitol Hill. Tam, thanks.
KEITH: You're welcome.