Obama says new U.S. farm bill is near-term priority

Reuters

WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, in arebuke to proposals by House Republicans for steep cuts in foodstamps for the poor, urged Congress on Thursday to pass a farmbill "that protects children and vulnerable adults in time ofneed."

Obama put the long-delayed bill, more than a year overdue,among three priorities for resolution by end of the year. Alsoon the list were immigration reform and a budget agreement.

Food stamps, the major U.S. antihunger program, are themake-or-break issue for the $500 billion, five-year farm bill.House Republicans want to tighten eligibility rules and save $39billion over a decade. The Democratic-run Senate suggested $4.5billion could be squeezed out by closing certain loopholes.

In remarks at the White House, Obama said "we should pass afarm bill, one that American farmers and ranchers can depend on;one that protects vulnerable children and adults in times ofneed; one that gives rural communities opportunities to grow andthe long-term certainty that they deserve."

The administration has threatened twice to veto large cutsin food stamps. It said Congress should instead end the $5billion-a-year "direct payment" subsidy to farmers and scaleback on federal subsidies for crop insurance.

Obama credited the Senate for writing "a solid, bipartisan"bill. "If House Republicans have ideas that they think wouldimprove the farm bill, let's see them. Let's negotiate. What arewe waiting for? Let's get this done," said Obama.

In response, the House Agriculture Committee said the fourleaders of the House and Senate committees met on Wednesday toget negotiations moving. The first meeting of the 41 "conferees"from the House and Senate, appointed to write a compromise farmbill, was expected by the end of the month.

An estimated 3.8 million people would lose food stampbenefits in 2014 under the House bill, mostly by shortening thetime able-bodied adults can receive benefits and by eliminatinga provision, created as part of welfare reform, that allowsbenefits to people with more assets than usually permitted.

A near-record 47.8 million people received benefits atlatest count. Enrollment surged by more than 20 million peoplesince the recession of 2008-09. Republican say continued highenrollment is a sign the program needs reform. Democrats say itshows weak economic recovery.

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