WASHINGTON — A polarized U.S. House voted Thursday to reduce food stamp funding by nearly $40 billion over the decade, setting up a confrontation with the Senate over a program that helps feed one in every six Maine residents.

Thursday’s 217–210 vote in the House was largely a symbolic victory for Republicans intent on making deep cuts to an $80 billion-a-year program they contend has grown excessively large in recent years. The Democratic-controlled Senate — which previously supported a $4 billion cut, or one-tenth the House amount — is unlikely to go along with cuts that critics say will eliminate food aid for millions of struggling families and veterans.

“It’s bad for seniors. It’s bad for children. It hits veterans and people in the military,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District,  who joined fellow Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, and all other Democrats in voting against the bill. “It’s not the kind of cut that Maine can sustain, and I feel confident that it will not get a positive vote in the Senate.”

If enacted, the eligibility changes contained in the House bill would result in an estimated 3.8 million Americans losing food stamp benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office. State-specific effects for Maine and other states were not available Thursday.

But while the final dollar figure also remains unknown, it is clear that cuts are coming to the food stamp program. And those cuts will be felt in Maine, which had the fourth-highest percentage of residents on food stamps in the nation last year, at 17.8 percent.

Maine’s average enrollment in the food stamp program — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — exploded from 173,000 participants in fiscal year 2008 to nearly 253,000 last year. That growth mirrors the national trend triggered by the 2008 recession.

The number of food stamp recipients in Maine now is trending downward, with the federal government allocating $30.4 million to 249,548 individuals (including children) in August 2013. Nationwide there are about 47 million Americans on food stamps.

Among those who rely on food stamps is the Westerlund family of Sanford.

Matt Westerlund said his family of four began receiving food assistance about three years ago after his youngest son was born with serious congenital heart defects and Westerlund’s work hours were reduced. His son has since undergone three heart surgeries.

“Without food stamps, we either would have gone hungry or been kicked out of our house,” Westerlund said. Westerlund said he is starting his own business and the family is receiving less assistance — roughly $100 a week, down from more than $150 a week initially.

Westerlund has followed the debate about food stamp funding in part as a member of the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive grass-roots group opposed to the House cuts. And he said he doesn’t believe the rhetoric from some politicians claiming of widespread fraud and waste in the system.

“The people who get hurt when there are cuts are the kids,” he said.

Republican House members argued Thursday, however, that their bill would cut abuse in the system by making it harder for “able-bodied” adults with no dependents to receive assistance. Dozens of states, including Maine, took advantage of a waiver to provide food stamps to adults who could not find work.

“This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican who crafted much of the bill, said on the House floor. “And most people don’t choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job.”

The administration of Gov. Paul LePage has sought to reduce assistance to able-bodied, childless adults through Medicaid but has maintained the food stamps waiver, which is paid for entirely with federal dollars.

John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the department had no comment on whether the administration supported the changes in the House bill.

Martins acknowledged, however, that the political fight in Congress is adding to uncertainty about food stamps. Payments are scheduled to increase because of a cost-of-living adjustment in October but then will fall with the expiration of an extra amount authorized by Congress during the recession.
“It’s a little bit complicated these days,” Martins said.

Traditionally, food stamps are incorporated into the larger Farm Bill dealing with agriculture policy and assistance programs in an attempt to build bipartisan support from both rural and urban lawmakers.

But House Republicans split the farm and food stamp provisions earlier this summer after the conservative wing of the party said the $20.5 billion in proposed cuts did not go far enough.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., did not exactly sing the praises of the House bill Thursday but urged his colleagues to pass a bill just so they could begin final negotiations with Senate Democrats. But Lucas lamented the heated political atmosphere on the issue.

“As I said at the beginning of the debate, it should not be this hard to pass a bill to make sure the consumers in this country and around the world have enough to eat,” Lucas said. “It shouldn’t be this hard. But everything seems to hard these days.”