FARGO - Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said a Republican push to expand work requirements for a food assistance program has brought farm bill negotiations to a standstill and endangers the sugar program and crop insurance.

Republican members of the House Agriculture Committee are pressing for a work requirement for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that would apply to able-bodied people up to age 65. The program now has work requirements for recipients ages 18 to 49.

Peterson, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said House Republicans' hard line on the issue is foolish in light of the fact that the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee has said he will not include the provision.

Yet the move risks unraveling a coalition that, in passing previous farm bills, has agreed to support the sugar program and crop insurance in return for support for the food assistance program.

"I think he's making a mistake," Peterson said on Tuesday, April 10, referring to Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and a proponent of extending the work requirement for SNAP. "I told the chairman this was not going to fly."

Because of the dispute over the work requirements - which prompted Democratic House leaders to instruct Peterson to stop negotiating over the new farm bill - the current farm bill likely will be extended, Peterson said.

During hearings for the current farm bill, including 23 hearings on the food assistance program, there was no support for extending the work program to those up to age 65, Peterson said. Expanding the work requirement would affect an estimated 3 million older Americans, he said, and the job training program that would accompany the work mandate would cost $7 billion.

"It's a waste of resources in my opinion," Peterson said.

The average payment under the food assistance program is $100 a month, but the work provision would require 80 hours of attendance at a job training program.

"This really isn't about training anybody," Peterson said, adding that he believes the real intent is to pressure recipients to drop out of the assistance program. "They're going after the old Republican talking points that there's a lot of lazy people," he added.

A dispute over food assistance - which accounts for 80 percent of farm bill spending - almost derailed the 2013 farm bill.

"Any effort to separate farm programs from nutrition programs threatens the rural-urban coalition that has kept the Farm Bill a bipartisan effort for years," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement. "Slashing nutrition assistance for vulnerable Americans is not the way to support our farmers or help those struggling to put food on the table for themselves and their families."

In 2016, there were 54,000 North Dakotans on the food assistance program. About 73 percent were families with children and 33 percent had family members who are elderly or disabled, said Heitkamp, who added that she will fight to support the needy families as well as farmers and ranchers.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., also a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, agreed with Peterson and Heitkamp that "attacks" on the nutrition program were dangerous to the farm bill's bipartisan support.

"As I travel around the state, meeting with members of my Farm Bill working group, I constantly hear how the nutrition programs are integral to the Farm Bill - including from groups like the Farmers Union and the Farm Bureau," Smith said in a statement. "Any attacks to the nutrition title threatens the entire Farm Bill. The Farm Bill has historically been very bipartisan, and I hope that we can continue that tradition."

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., also a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said both nutrition assistance and recipient accountability are important - but so is reaching an agreement.

"Our goals for SNAP are to help low-income individuals who need it for assistance, but also to make sure the program has good accountability and encourages self-sufficiency," Hoeven said in a statement. "Job requirements where appropriate can be part of it, but we need to find agreement and move forward on a strong farm bill."