Top negotiators say U.S. farm bill delayed to January


* 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 forthe new U.S. farm bill, already a year behind schedule, said onTuesday they would not complete work until January on thelegislation to cut food stamps for the poor and expand cropinsurance for farmers.

After an hour-long meeting, the leaders said the farm bill,which covers issues from crop subsidies to farm exports and foodaid, would not be ready for action before Congress adjourns forthe year.

Work on the bill has been delayed repeatedly since mid-2012by demands for deep cuts in food stamps. Conservatives in theHouse of Representatives want the largest cuts in a generation,$40 billion over 10 years. The Senate proposed $4.5 billion incuts in its version of the bill.

"We will be ready to vote in January," Debbie Stabenow, whochairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas added: "Ibelieve that's the scenario we will see."

Food stamps remain an open issue, Stabenow said after themeeting in her office. Many elements of the farm program alsowere up in the air, the leaders said. Stabenow also said it wastaking longer than expected to get, from the CongressionalBudget Office, the budget "scores" to meet targets for savings.

Lucas, Stabenow, Senator Thad Cochran and RepresentativeCollin Peterson are the leaders of a 41-member panel selected toreconcile the Senate and House farm bills passed earlier thisyear. The Senate aimed for $23 billion in savings while theHouse called for $55 billion.

The new farm bill would spend some $500 billion over fiveyears, three-quarters of it on food stamps.

Both chambers would trim spending on traditional farmsubsidies, conservation programs and food stamps, whileexpanding outlays for crop insurance by up to 10 percent. Onecrop insurance proposal would assure grain and soybean growersof up to 90 percent of average revenue from a crop.

The House is slated to adjourn for the year on Friday withthe Senate set to pack up by Dec. 20. Lucas and Stabenow saidthey still hoped for agreement on the framework for the farmbill before Congress leaves town.

While Lucas said he would propose an extension of the 2008farm law as a safeguard until the new bill is ready, Stabenowrejected that idea. Even a short extension could trigger thepayment of $5 billion to grain, cotton and soybean growersthrough the "direct payment" subsidy, she said.

"It is something that is very possible," said Stabenow.

A significant number of senators are opposed to thepayments. The House and Senate have voted to eliminate thesubsidy, 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 setin 2012, but still run at historically high levels.

An extension would avoid the "dairy cliff," a potentialdoubling of dairy prices in January that is tied to the returnto a 1949 "permanent" farm law. Stabenow said AgricultureSecretary Tom Vilsack had assured her there would be no harm ifthe new farm bill was enacted in early January. A reversion toelements of the permanent law will not happen on Jan. 1.

Lucas said he would file a bill on Tuesday for a short-termextension of the 2008 law "to cover all bases" in case there wasyet another a slowdown in progress on the new farm bill.

House Republicans have proposed tighter rules for theSupplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly knownas food stamps. Their plan would disqualify about 8 percent ofrecipients. Democrats say that cut is too steep.

A new study by researchers at Columbia University releasedthis week showed that government programs such as food stampsand unemployment insurance have significantly reduced the U.S.poverty rate in recent decades.

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