US farm bill talks stall, sides far apart on food stamps

Reuters

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - The four key negotiators onthe new farm bill are miles apart on the paramount issue - thelevel of cuts in the major U.S. anti-hunger program - with nosign of compromise as time runs down for legislative actionbefore the end of the year.

Four hours of face-to-face meetings on Wednesday andThursday failed to produce an agreement. House Agriculturechairman Frank Lucas told reporters on Thursday that no moremeetings were planned this week.

Congress plans only a couple of weeks of work in Decemberbefore adjourning for the year. Without an agreement soon amongnegotiators, it will be impossible to call a vote beforeyear-end on the $500 billion, five-year legislative package.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives wants thebiggest cuts in a generation in food stamps for the poor, $39billion over 10 years. That's nearly 10 times the proposal fromthe Democrat-run Senate.

"It's all about policy," Senate Agriculture chairwomanDebbie Stabenow told reporters outside her basement "hideaway"office in the Capitol, where talks were held.

Stabenow was unyielding on food stamps, saying harmful cutswere unacceptable. She also was not willing to consider cuts of$10 billion as a lure to gain support from conservative HouseRepublicans, who have demanded sweeping cuts.

"They're not the people who are going to vote for the farmbill anyway," said the Michigan Democrat.

Analysts say it will be difficult to write a food stampsection acceptable to all sides. Some conservative Republicanswant still deeper cuts while a large number of House Democratsoppose any cuts at all.

The White House has threatened twice to veto a farm billwith unduly harsh cutbacks in food stamps.

"The commodity title and SNAP (food stamps) are the twoissues," said Rep. Colin Peterson, the Democratic leader on theHouse Agriculture Committee.

DAIRY CLIFF

Without a new law, the U.S. farm program will revert on Jan.1 to the high support prices of an underlying 1949 law. Theprice of milk in the grocery store would double, creating theso-called dairy cliff.

Lawmakers averted that threat a year go by passing ashort-term extension, now expired, of the 2008 farm law.

"There won't be an extension in the Senate that includesdirect payments," said Stabenow, referring to the $5billion-a-year subsidy to grain, cotton and soybean farmers thatis a top target of reformers.

Asked about bundling a farm bill with a deficit reductionpackage, Stabenow said, "I've always said I'm open to manythings." House Speaker John Boehner ruled out that tactic lastweek, saying the farm and budget bills are separate matters.

Besides food stamps, there are disputes over crop and dairysubsidies. The Senate says the House would set target prices sohigh they would override the marketplace and the House says thenew revenue protection system supported by the Senate is skewedtoward the corn and soybean growers in the Midwest while puttingthose who grow wheat, rice and peanuts at a disadvantage.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor spearheaded the plan forsweeping change to food stamps, formally named the SupplementalNutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). With nearly one in sevenAmericans currently receiving aid, Cantor said the program wasan unaffordable burden on middle-class Americans.

On Nov. 1 SNAP recipients saw a $5 billion cut in benefits,or roughly 7 percent per person, when part of the 2009 economicstimulus package expired.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank,said this week that SNAP enrollment rose because of the 2008-09recession and high jobless rates.

It said food stamp costs are certain to fall during 2014 andwarned that additional large cuts "would make life harder fortens of millions of Americans."

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