MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) -- House and Senate negotiators have begun talks on crafting a compromise farm bill, including cuts to the food stamp program.
The talks opened Wednesday afternoon, just two days before food stamp recipients will see a separate, unrelated cut in their monthly benefits. On Friday, a temporary benefit from the 2009 stimulus that boosted food stamp dollars will expire.
According to the Agriculture Department, that means a family of four receiving food stamps will receive $36 less a month. The cuts are expected to reduce the almost $80 billion program by almost $5 billion next year.
If passed, the farm bill cuts would be on top of that amount. The cost of the program has more than doubled since 2008 as the economy has struggled, and Republicans say it needs to be better targeted to only the neediest people. Legislation passed by the GOP-controlled House would cut food stamps by an additional $4 billion annually and change eligibility and work requirements.
The Senate farm bill would cut a tenth of that amount, with Democrats and President Barack Obama opposing major cuts.
Farm-state lawmakers have been pushing the farm bill for more than two years, and the conference negotiations represented the opening round in final talks. If the bill is not passed by the end of the year and current farm law is not extended, certain dairy supports would expire that could raise the price of milk. Farmers would start to feel more effects next spring.
"It took us years to get here but we are here," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla. "Let's not take years to get it done."
The biggest obstacle to a final bill is how far apart the two parties are on food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Lucas said at the conference meeting that he was hoping to find common ground on the issue, but House leadership, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have insisted on higher cuts.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent out a statement as the meeting opened that said food stamp recipients "deserve swift action from Congress to pass a bill that provides the much-needed nutritional support for our children, our seniors, our veterans, and our communities."
As Congress debates the cuts to the program, charities say they are preparing for the farm bill reductions and also the scheduled cuts taking place Friday.
"Charities cannot fill the gap for the cuts being proposed to SNAP," said Maura Daly of Feeding America, a network of the nation's food banks. "We are very concerned about the impact on the charitable system."
Daly says food banks may have to as much as double their current levels of distribution if the House cuts were enacted. The Congressional Budget Office says that if the bill were enacted, as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014.
Negotiators will have other tough issues to resolve, including how to restructure farm subsidies as they phase out others and an overhaul of dairy supports.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican on the conference committee who chaired the House agriculture panel in the 1990s, said the farm bill process has already gone on too long.
"We're going to lose credibility if we don't get this bill done," he told the other farm-state lawmakers. "We have to get this bill done."
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