By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - The four key negotiators on the new farm bill are miles apart on the paramount issue - the level of cuts in the major U.S. anti-hunger program - with no sign of compromise as time runs down for legislative action before the end of the year.
Four hours of face-to-face meetings on Wednesday and Thursday failed to produce an agreement. House Agriculture chairman Frank Lucas told reporters on Thursday that no more meetings were planned this week.
Congress plans only a couple of weeks of work in December before adjourning for the year. Without an agreement soon among negotiators, it will be impossible to call a vote before year-end on the $500 billion, five-year legislative package.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives wants the biggest cuts in a generation in food stamps for the poor, $39 billion over 10 years. That's nearly 10 times the proposal from the Democrat-run Senate.
"It's all about policy," Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow told reporters outside her basement "hideaway" office in the Capitol, where talks were held.
Stabenow was unyielding on food stamps, saying harmful cuts were unacceptable. She also was not willing to consider cuts of $10 billion as a lure to gain support from conservative House Republicans, who have demanded sweeping cuts.
"They're not the people who are going to vote for the farm bill anyway," said the Michigan Democrat.
Analysts say it will be difficult to write a food stamp section acceptable to all sides. Some conservative Republicans want still deeper cuts while a large number of House Democrats oppose any cuts at all.
The White House has threatened twice to veto a farm bill with unduly harsh cutbacks in food stamps.
"The commodity title and SNAP (food stamps) are the two issues," said Rep. Colin Peterson, the Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee.
Without a new law, the U.S. farm program will revert on Jan. 1 to the high support prices of an underlying 1949 law. The price of milk in the grocery store would double, creating the so-called dairy cliff.
Lawmakers averted that threat a year go by passing a short-term extension, now expired, of the 2008 farm law.
"There won't be an extension in the Senate that includes direct payments," said Stabenow, referring to the $5 billion-a-year subsidy to grain, cotton and soybean farmers that is a top target of reformers.
Asked about bundling a farm bill with a deficit reduction package, Stabenow said, "I've always said I'm open to many things." House Speaker John Boehner ruled out that tactic last week, saying the farm and budget bills are separate matters.
Besides food stamps, there are disputes over crop and dairy subsidies. The Senate says the House would set target prices so high they would override the marketplace and the House says the new revenue protection system supported by the Senate is skewed toward the corn and soybean growers in the Midwest while putting those who grow wheat, rice and peanuts at a disadvantage.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor spearheaded the plan for sweeping change to food stamps, formally named the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). With nearly one in seven Americans currently receiving aid, Cantor said the program was an 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 economic stimulus package expired.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank, said this week that SNAP enrollment rose because of the 2008-09 recession and high jobless rates.
It said food stamp costs are certain to fall during 2014 and warned that additional large cuts "would make life harder for tens of millions of Americans."