Senate, House Negotiators Tackle Farm Bill, Crop Insurance

U.S. Senate and House negotiators, who will begin working on a compromise farm bill on Oct. 30, face a major fight over proposed deep cuts in food stamps for the poor.

The leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees jointly announced the first meeting of a conference committee, made up of 41 members of the House and Senate who will hammer out differences in the Senate and House bills.

Food stamps are the paramount issue. The Republican-controlled House wants stricter eligibility rules that would save $39 billion over 10 years, about 10 times the cuts proposed by the Senate.

Other provisions that the conferees will wrestle with include requiring conservation practices of farmers, spending more on federally subsidized crop insurance and making the richest farmers pay more for insurance.

Food stamps constitute the major U.S. domestic anti-hunger program. At last count 47.8 million people, made up mostly of children, the elderly or disabled, received benefits averaging about $4.37 a day.

To have any chance of passage in both chambers, the final version of the farm bill probably will propose cuts of $8 billion to $12 billion, said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small farms.

The bills would cut conservation spending by around $6 billion and increase spending on federally subsidized crop insurance by up to $10 billion over a decade.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, who heads the conference committee, opposes Senate provisions that would tighten rules for subsidies for farmers, require farmers to practice conservation to qualify for crop insurance subsidies and make the wealthiest 1 percent of growers, with more than $750,000 adjusted gross income, pay more for the insurance.

Conference committees typically need several weeks of work, much of it in private, to write a final version of a bill. A farm lobbyist said congressional staff already have resolved minor differences in noncontroversial sections of the bill.