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WASHINGTON: The US 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-criticised sugar programme, 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 programme and invite more foreign competition.

The sugar programme 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 criticised costly farm subsidies in the past.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-NC., says that “the time is now” to deal with immigration and that the farm bill doesn’t face a pressing deadline. He said farmers “want us to deal with immigration and the farm bill both.” Meadows and other Freedom Caucus members met with House leaders into the evening Thursday to try to resolve their disputes. “Everybody’s trying to get to ‘yes,’” Meadows told reporters, but questions remain unresolved.

The sugar programme is part of an amalgam of commodity support programmes that have sweeping backing in Republican-leaning farm country. But many Republicans oppose the sugar programme, saying it runs counter to the party’s free market bearings.

“It’s one of the most ridiculous programmes in the entire federal government, and that’s saying something,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.

Some GOP moderates are uneasy about the new work standards for food stamps, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would drive up to 2 million people off the programme.

Currently, adults ages 18 to 59 are required to work part time or agree to accept a job if they’re offered one. Stricter rules apply to able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49. They are subject to a three-month limit of benefits unless they meet a work requirement of 80 hours per month.

The new bill expands that requirement to apply to all work-capable adults, mandating that they either work or participate in work training for 20 hours per week with the exception of seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children under the age of 6, or people with disabilities.

For years, the twice-a-decade effort to rewrite the farm bill has relied on a coalition of farm-state Republicans who back federal agriculture subsidies and other assistance and Democrats supporting food stamps. This has proved frustrating to conservatives seeking to make changes to either side of the measure.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2018