* 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 (Reuters) - 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 the year.
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.