* Farm bill is more than a year overdue
* Make or break issue is size of cuts in food stamps
* Negotiators hope to clinch farm bill 'framework' soon
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Dec 10 The four top negotiators for
the new U.S. farm bill, already a year behind schedule, said on
Tuesday they would not complete work until January on the
legislation to cut food stamps for the poor and expand crop
insurance for farmers.
After an hour-long meeting, the leaders said the farm bill,
which covers issues from crop subsidies to farm exports and food
aid, would not be ready for action before Congress adjourns for
Work on the bill has been delayed repeatedly since mid-2012
by demands for deep cuts in food stamps. Conservatives in the
House of Representatives want the largest cuts in a generation,
$40 billion over 10 years. The Senate proposed $4.5 billion in
cuts in its version of the bill.
"We will be ready to vote in January," Debbie Stabenow, who
chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters.
House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas added: "I
believe that's the scenario we will see."
Food stamps remain an open issue, Stabenow said after the
meeting in her office. Many elements of the farm program also
were up in the air, the leaders said. Stabenow also said it was
taking longer than expected to get, from the Congressional
Budget Office, the budget "scores" to meet targets for savings.
Lucas, Stabenow, Senator Thad Cochran and Representative
Collin Peterson are the leaders of a 41-member panel selected to
reconcile the Senate and House farm bills passed earlier this
year. The Senate aimed for $23 billion in savings while the
House called for $55 billion.
The new farm bill would spend some $500 billion over five
years, three-quarters of it on food stamps.
Both chambers would trim spending on traditional farm
subsidies, conservation programs and food stamps, while
expanding outlays for crop insurance by up to 10 percent. One
crop insurance proposal would assure grain and soybean growers
of up to 90 percent of average revenue from a crop.
The House is slated to adjourn for the year on Friday with
the Senate set to pack up by Dec. 20. Lucas and Stabenow said
they still hoped for agreement on the framework for the farm
bill before Congress leaves town.
While Lucas said he would propose an extension of the 2008
farm law as a safeguard until the new bill is ready, Stabenow
rejected that idea. Even a short extension could trigger the
payment of $5 billion to grain, cotton and soybean growers
through the "direct payment" subsidy, she said.
"It is something that is very possible," said Stabenow.
A significant number of senators are opposed to the
payments. The House and Senate have voted to eliminate the
subsidy, which is paid regardless of need.
The farm economy has enjoyed boom times since 2006. Corn,
wheat and soybean prices are down sharply from the records set
in 2012, but still run at historically high levels.
An extension would avoid the "dairy cliff," a potential
doubling of dairy prices in January that is tied to the return
to a 1949 "permanent" farm law. Stabenow said Agriculture
Secretary Tom Vilsack had assured her there would be no harm if
the new farm bill was enacted in early January. A reversion to
elements of the permanent law will not happen on Jan. 1.
Lucas said he would file a bill on Tuesday for a short-term
extension of the 2008 law "to cover all bases" in case there was
yet another a slowdown in progress on the new farm bill.
House Republicans have proposed tighter rules for the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known
as food stamps. Their plan would disqualify about 8 percent of
recipients. Democrats say that cut is too steep.
A new study by researchers at Columbia University released
this week showed that government programs such as food stamps
and unemployment insurance have significantly reduced the U.S.
poverty rate in recent decades.