Lead negotiator sees January finish for overdue U.S. farm bill


* For first time, Lucas says "next year" for farm bill

* Food stamps is central issue in long-delayed legislation

* Lucas goal: a farm bill framework now for a vote later

* Republicans see more chances to chip away at food stampcosts

WASHINGTON, Dec 3 (Reuters) - Congress could enact a newU.S. farm law that cuts food stamps for the poor and expandsfederally subsidized crop insurance in January if negotiatorssoon break a deadlock, the lawmaker overseeing the negotiationssaid on Tuesday.

Cuts in food stamps are the paramount issue for the farmbill, which is more than a year overdue. ConservativeRepublicans want the largest cuts in a generation, $40 billionover 10 years. House Democrats solidly oppose any cuts. Thesides continue to struggle for a compromise.

The food stamp fight has repeatedly slowed work on thefive-year, $500 billion bill, which has also endured thefirst-ever defeat of a farm bill in the House ofRepresentatives. Deep divisions also remain over crop subsidiesand dairy reform, other lines of dispute that must be resolved.

With time running out in 2013, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, whochairs the House-Senate negotiations, admitted for the firsttime that the farm bill may not be ready for a vote beforeyear-end, even though a broad framework might be hammered outthis month.

"We're not quite there yet," Lucas, chairman of the HouseAgriculture Committee, said on the AgriTalk radio program, whichis broadcast across a wide swathe of the central United States.

"It is possible to have an understanding, a set ofprinciples laid out, a text that the lawyers could work on withthe economists to complete so we'd be back next January tofinish the final job," Lucas said.

The "big four" agricultural negotiators - Lucas, SenateAgriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Rep. Collin Peterson ofMinnesota and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi - agreed to meeton Wednesday in search of a breakthrough. Two days offace-to-face talks foundered in late November.

"We've had this uncertainty for far too long. It's time forCongress to finish its work," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsacktold reporters on Tuesday.

But Vilsack dismissed the idea the White House andcongressional leaders should take over the stalled talks, as didHouse Speaker John Boehner at a news conference.

The Senate's farm bill would cut food stamps by $4.5 billionover a decade, mostly by narrowing a loophole on utility costs.House Republicans proposed tighter eligibility rules that wouldend benefits to about 4 million people in 2014. Some 47.7million people received food stamps at latest count - about onein seven Americans.

On Tuesday, two Republican aides said Stabenow was unwillingto consider reforms that were good policy and would save money.The utility loophole could be tightened further to generate $9billion in savings, for example, they said.

"It sounds academic, so abstract," said Ellen Vollinger,legal/director of the anti-hunger group Food Research and ActionCenter. But ultimatedly lower funding "comes down to fooddollars," she said.

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