WASHINGTON, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The new U.S. farm bill is likely to cut the food stamp program by $8 billion over a decade, a key Democratic senator said on Thursday, an amount that is a fraction of the cuts demanded by many Republican lawmakers.
While conservatives want stricter eligibility rules that would disqualify up to 4 million recipients and save $40 billion over 10 years, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, said the expected $8 billion in savings would be generated by closing a loophole on utility costs.
The four lead negotiators on the farm bill have said they intend to unveil a framework for a compromise bill in early January. Under that timetable, the Senate and House of Representatives might enact the bill within a couple of weeks.
Food stamps are the paramount issue for the farm bill. The House proposed the largest cuts in a generation, while the Senate voted for $4.5 billion in cuts. The bill also would expand the federally subsidized crop insurance system by up to 10 percent and could boost crop support rates.
"From everything I've seen, we are now within a few items of having this agreed to," Harkin said during a teleconference.
Harkin is one of the 41 members of the select committee assigned to reconcile the House and Senate bills.
On food stamps, Harkin said, the lead negotiators could carve out savings by setting a higher threshold of government assistance to pay utility bills, a program that can trigger food stamp aid.
Harkin was one of the first lawmakers to publicly make reference to the likely size of cuts, although the $8 billion figure has circulated recently among farm lobbyists and activist groups.
Aides to Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and House Agriculture chairman Frank Lucas were not immediately available for comment.
Activists said they wanted to know if negotiators agreed to change eligibility rules, a goal of Republicans, in exchange for the relatively small cuts, which might attract Democrats to vote for the bill.
A Republican aide has said that tighter work requirements were imperative if spending cuts were $10 billion or less.
"Nobody seems to have bill language," said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center.
Without a clear description of the bill, she said, leaders cannot gauge if their package is popular enough to win.
Two environmental activists said January is the make-or-break month for the farm bill, which is already 14 months overdue. If a bill is not passed next month, said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, "we'll be looking at a two-year extension" of the now-expired 2008 law.