By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned on Monday that a government shutdown risks nutritional assistance for the nearly 7 million low-income women and children who rely on benefits.
Vilsack said some benefits could be affected within days or weeks if Congress fails to provide funding for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
The aide to President Joe Biden said the “vast majority” of participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC program, would see an immediate reduction in benefits, with cuts happening in the days and weeks after a shutdown starts.
A separate benefits program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), will continue as normal for the month of October but could be affected afterward, he said.
“If we have a shutdown, WIC shuts down,” Vilsack told reporters at a briefing. “For what reason? There’s no reason for this shutdown, at the end of the day.”
Millions of Americans rely on food benefits to make ends meet as inflation has put pressure on household budgets and made goods from bread to fresh vegetables and baby formula more expensive since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly half of newborns in the United States rely on WIC, according to the Biden administration.
During a shutdown, farm service agencies will also stop making loans to farmers during harvest time, and new homebuyers won’t be able to get loans in rural areas, Vilsack said. More than 50,000 Department of Agriculture workers will be furloughed, meaning they won’t receive a paycheck.
Biden said on Monday that the Black community would suffer if Congress does not provide funding for the federal government after Sept. 30.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives may move to advance steep spending cuts this week that stand no chance of becoming law, steps that could force a partial shutdown of the U.S. government by next Sunday. The steep spending cuts sought by House Republicans would likely be rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
House lawmakers on Tuesday were set to take up four spending bills for the coming fiscal year that would also impose new restrictions on abortion access, undo an $11 billion Biden administration climate initiative, and resume construction of the Mexico-U.S. border wall, a signature initiative of former President Donald Trump. Biden has vowed to veto at least two of the bills.
Vilsack called Republican fiscal plans “punitive” and “petty.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Mark Potter and Deepa Babington)
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