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The top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee lambasted USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack over the recent surge in federal spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which some House Republicans are targeting for cuts as part of upcoming negotiations on the debt limit and federal spending.

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) grilled Secretary Tom Vilsack over the moves by USDA that led to SNAP's expansion. According to independent government watchdog GAO, the agency's recent update of nutrition guidance known as the Thrifty Food Plan, which serves as the foundation for SNAP, failed to include key accountability and transparency measures . That has angered Republicans and added to their push for cuts to the programs, which helps to feed more than 40 million primarily low-income Americans.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) later complained that USDA is only focused on two areas, increasing spending on SNAP and "obsessing over climate change."

As POLITICO has reported, House Republicans took their first step to try to expand restrictions on SNAP earlier this week, introducing legislation that would expand work requirements for some SNAP beneficiaries, as well as other reforms.

Last month, Boozman unleashed rare and blistering criticism of top USDA officials for their role in steeply increasing nutrition spending during the pandemic without congressional input, saying the move threatened the viability of the 2023 farm bill and used a “sloppy” process.

On Thursday, Boozman pressed Vilsack on the spike in SNAP's costs following the Thrifty Food Plan update.

Vilsack responded that the 2018 farm bill didn’t specifically state the update needed to be revenue neutral.

“I understand your argument, I just don’t think it holds water,” Boozman replied. While he didn't take issue with the program being updated, but the Arkansas senator said he didn’t agree with “the idea that an agency can spend $300 billion without congressional direction.”

Post-pandemic changes: Vilsack told lawmakers that it's his understanding the formal end of the Covid-19 public health emergency in May will trigger the return of work requirements for federal food assistance. Those requirements had been paused during the pandemic. If that's the case, states will once again have to request the USDA's approval to waive those work requirements on a case-by-case basis.

Increased SNAP emergency allotments that Congress approved early on in the pandemic have already ended. Food bank operators say they’ve seen an increase in the number of Americans seeking food aid since the benefits ended at the end of February.

Democrats push back: Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has repeatedly insisted Congress is “not going to cut SNAP.”

During the hearing on Thursday, Stabenow called out the House Republicans who are calling for steep social spending cuts, including for federal food assistance.

Stabenow, a member of Senate Democratic leadership, said that the “threats we are hearing from some in the House in favor of reckless and indiscriminate mandatory budget cuts will result in cuts to all Farm Bill programs.”

“We cannot go backward at a time when our farmers and families need us most,” Stabenow added.

To read the story in PoliticoPro click here.