WASHINGTON -- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took to the Senate floor Wednesday in an emotional bid to stave off $4.5 billion in cuts to programs that feed the hungry in this year's farm bill.
The New York Democrat was the lone member of the Senate Agriculture Committee to vote against the farm bill, which aims to save around $24 billion over 10 years, largely by reducing food aid and replacing farmers' subsidies with a crop insurance program.
Gillibrand offered an amendment to restore the aid, which comes from the "heat and eat" program in which some states grant automatic food-stamp eligibility to people who can't afford to heat their homes.
"Under this bill, families in New York that are already struggling will lose about $90 a month for food that goes onto their tables," Gillibrand said. The senator recalled one mother describing how her son would scrounge extra food from school lunches so the family could have something for dinner before they finally qualified for food stamps.
"Ninety dollars a month may not sound like a lot to some people. But I can tell you that if you're a parent who's trying to protect your children and feed them good, wholesome, nutritious food, it means everything in the world," said Gillibrand, noting that in New York state alone, some 300,000 people would lose enough food aid to leave them hungry one week a month.
"I don't know if any parents who're watching today, whether you personally ever heard your child say, 'Mommy, I'm still hungry.' Well, imagine not being able to help your child and feed your child," Gillibrand said. "Imagine that your child says this every single day. That is what we are facing here."
"As a mother and a lawmaker, watching a child go hungry is something I just will not stand for," she said.
The senator pointed out that food stamps are especially effective in boosting the economy, citing an estimate by Moody's economist Mark Zandi.
Gillibrand acknowledged that cuts to the budget must be made, but said the poor and hungry shouldn't have to suffer for the benefit of foreign corporations.
"Families who are living in poverty, who are just trying to figure out how to keep the lights on and put food on the table -- they did not spend this nation into debt," she said. "And we should not be trying to balance the budget on their backs."
Gillibrand's amendment, which is co-sponsored by several other senators, would pay for its $4.5 billion cost by lowering the cap on federal payments to crop insurance companies, many based overseas, from $1.3 billion to $825 million. It would also lower their government-guaranteed profits from 14 to 12 percent.
"Subsidies for large corporations that don't need it -- companies based in Bermuda, Australia, Switzerland -- [are] not the right priorities for America," Gillibrand said. "Anyone who argues that these companies will struggle from this shift needs to meet a family who is dependent on food stamps to feed their children."
The House version of the farm bill cuts even more deeply, aiming for $36 billion in savings from food stamps. Often, when the two chambers merge differing versions of a bill, the two sides settle on a number somewhere in the middle, which in this case would guarantee bigger cuts than those the Senate proposes.
Even as Congress is trying to reduce aid to hungry people, the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that need will continue to grow through 2014. In 2007, about 26 million Americans received food aid. By 2011, that number had spiked by some 70 percent, with 45 million people a month receiving help to buy something to eat.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.