WASHINGTON — The House opened debate Tuesday on a spending bill for farm and food programs that bears the fingerprints — deep spending cuts — of a long-term budget plan the new Republican majority adopted earlier this year.
With the GOP firmly in the majority, the House appeared on track toward passing the measure, which cuts overall agriculture spending below levels from 2008 and takes particular aim at an Obama administration initiative to link community food markets to local farmers.
Democrats and Republicans argued over a proposed 12 percent cut to the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program, the biggest anti-poverty program in the nation. And Democrats decried cuts to school nutrition programs.
Republicans countered that the core missions of those programs would be preserved, even as the federal government comes closer to living within its financial means. And they pushed back hard on the WIC program, noting that enrollment has dropped in the past year and reminding Democrats that they had taken $500 million out of the WIC program last year to pay for part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's anti-discrimination settlement with farmers.
"Where was the screaming and hollering then?" said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., during the debate.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said the measure "protects those who have, but not those who have not."
Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said Tuesday afternoon he had not decided how to vote, seeking more details about how spending levels compare during the past few years. A final House vote could come today.
In some cases, Mr. Owens said, spending figures on federal programs have been skewed upward by stimulus funding, and he said he wanted a more accurate picture of how the Republican proposal would affect USDA programs.
In general, Mr. Owens said, he does not want to see programs' funding fall below levels from fiscal 2010. But he said he believes budget pain should be shared by most federal agencies.
The Republican proposal reflects the deep-cutting budget resolution crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., earlier this year — an indication that Mr. Ryan's plan has more immediate effects than the overhaul of Medicare planned for 2020 that has gained such publicity.
The budget resolution, although it does not have the force of law, directs how much overall funding the House can approve in each of the spending bills it passes for federal agencies.
Total discretionary funding for agriculture and nutrition programs would be $17.25 billion, a 13.4 percent cut from this year and $5 billion less than the Obama administration requested. Funding for WIC would total $5.9 billion, or 12.4 percent less than this year.
Republicans said the WIC program could tap into federal contingency funds and other sources.
"We will make sure no one falls through the cracks," said Mr. Kingston, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees spending on nutrition programs.
They also took aim at the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative, which the USDA has touted as a way to foster more community farmers' markets and bring local produce into markets. The GOP raised questions about officials' travel expenses to promote it, directing the department to notify the committee at least 72 hours ahead of any travel related to it and to provide an agenda and cost estimate.
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., rapped the Republican measure for targeting nutritional standards in schools. The House proposal slows the implementation of new food standards in schools by directing the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service to revise its proposed regulations in a way that will not increase costs.
"As many of the representatives in states and local school districts have cautioned, an overly aggressive implementation schedule and unrealistic demands on changes in nutrient content can lead to burdensome costs, estimated to be about $7 billion over 5 years," the committee's GOP majority said in a report accompanying the bill.
Mrs. Gillibrand called the school lunch provision "destructive" and urged the chairman of the Senate subcommittee in charge of drafting a companion bill, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., to reject it.
"The Child Nutrition Programs serve as an incredibly important benefit for 56.16 percent of children in our nation," Mrs. Gillibrand wrote to Mr. Kohl on Tuesday. "For many children, the lunch they receive at school is the only opportunity they have to eat fruits and vegetables. This is especially important considering that in a recent report the USDA found that 16 percent of households with children reported food insecurity."