Long-delayed U.S. farm bill heads for final showdown

Reuters

* House and Senate disagree sharply over food stamps

* Enrollment in anti-hunger program is near record

* Farm bill would expand crop insurance by 10 percent

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, Oct 11 (Reuters) - The final stage of thelong-delayed U.S. farm bill is about to begin, but drafting alegislative compromise between the Senate and House ofRepresentatives is still hampered by deep partisan divisionsover cuts in food stamps for the poor.

Lawmakers in the House agreed on Friday to open negotiationswith the Senate over a final version of the five-year, $500billion bill. Its salient agricultural initiative, but one thatis mostly not controversial, is an expansion of federallysubsidized crop insurance by 10 percent.

The major dispute in the bill is food stamps, which helplow-income Americans, mostly children, the elderly or disabled,to buy food. The latest figures show a near-record 47.8 millionpeople received benefits averaging $133 a month.

The Republican-controlled House wants to cut the major U.S.antihunger program by $39 billion over a decade, nearly 10 timesthe reduction proposed by the Democrat-run Senate. The tightereligibility rules in the House plan would cut 4 million peoplefrom the program in 2014.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was the leading proponentof the cuts. Another prominent supporter, Steve Southerland ofFlorida, was expected to be named one of the House negotiatorsas a signal of Republican resolve to see major reforms.

"We believe by reforming food stamps we will save theprogram for the truly needy," Virginia Foxx, a North CarolinaRepublican said on Friday.

House Democrats regard the Republican cuts as cold-heartedand putting an undue burden on recipients.

Jim Clyburn of South Carolina cited language to require foodstamp applicants to take a drug test and suggested, "you oughtto test all those people getting farm subsidies and see if theyare deserving of federal benefits."

In a tactical move, House Republicans would split the farmbill in two for review in the future. The food stamp programwould be considered every three years, while agriculturalprograms would be on a five-year cycle.

Conservatives say it will be easier to win reforms underthat format. Nutrition and farm subsidy programs have been tiedtogether since the 1970s, creating a coalition of farm-state andurban lawmakers.

Colin Peterson of Minnesota, the Democratic leader on theHouse Agriculture Committee, said the division could mean theend of farm bills as they have been known until now.

"We need a full conference to work out some bigdifferences," conceded Frank Lucas, chairman of the HouseAgriculture Committee.

Congress is a year behind schedule in writing a successor tothe 2008 farm law, which expired a year ago and was revivedearly this year. It died again at the same time the governmentwent into a partial shutdown.

"The big question is if we're going to get a new farm bill,"said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group. "I thinkthere's a long way to go from where we are today to a farm billthat can pass on the floor of the Senate and the House."

Democrats voted en masse against food stamp cuts. TeaParty-influenced Republicans assured defeat of the originalHouse farm bill in June because they wanted deeper cuts than the$20 billion proposed. It was the first time the House defeated afarm bill.

Among agricultural provisions, the most contentious arelikely to be Senate proposals to require farmers to practicesoil conservation to qualify for premium subsidies on cropinsurance, and to require the wealthiest growers, with more than$750,000 adjusted gross income a year, to pay a larger share ofthe premium. The House has rejected similar ideas.

Crop insurance is the largest part of the farm safety net,costing about $9 billion a year.

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