WASHINGTON — The U.S. sugar industry on Thursday won an easier-than-expected victory over food processors, soft drink manufacturers and candy makers trying to rewrite the government's much-criticized sugar program, a web of price supports, loans and tariffs that props up prices for the commodity.
In a decisive 278-137 vote, the House rejected a bid by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., to significantly weaken the program and invite more foreign competition.
Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Adrian Smith and Don Bacon of Nebraska all joined the majority in voting against the amendment.
The sugar program was one of the key battles in this year's farm bill, a five-year renewal of federal farm and nutrition policy that is again proving to be a headache for Republicans controlling Congress.
This year, conservatives hoping to force progress on unrelated immigration issues are lining up to threaten passage of the overall farm measure. The move by the hard-right House Freedom Caucus appears to have put passage of the measure Friday in jeopardy.
GOP leaders are promoting this year's renewal of the measure as tightening work and job training requirements for food stamps. But the food stamp proposal has driven Democrats away from the bill. That means Republicans have to pass the measure with minimal defections, and it puts pressure on Republicans who have criticized costly farm subsidies in the past.
The sugar program is part of an amalgam of commodity support programs that have sweeping backing in Republican-leaning farm country. But many Republicans oppose the sugar program, saying it runs counter to the party's free market bearings.
Foxx's sugar plan would have scrapped production limits, given the Department of Agriculture more power to boost sugar imports and eliminated a government program that sells surpluses to ethanol producers.
"Let's be crystal clear about what the sugar program does: It puts the government in charge of deciding how much sugar will be produced in this country, which inflates the cost — and it guarantees the processing industry a base profit by giving them subsidized loans," Foxx said Thursday. "We stopped these practices years ago for other commodities and only sugar is left with this sweet deal."
A comparable vote five years ago was very close, but Thursday's tally was a runaway. Democrats voted overwhelmingly to defend the sugar program, as did a majority of Republicans, heeding warnings that unraveling it would threaten the entire farm bill.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said Foxx's proposal was a "poison pill" since its passage could bleed support for the underlying farm bill and force Republicans in some areas to take a politically tough vote.
Indeed, a string of lawmakers from Nebraska, Minnesota, Florida, Michigan and Texas rose up to defend the program and the thousands of jobs it supports in their states.