* Without a new law, policy would revert to 1949 act
* House demands price-support option on crops
* Senate says cannot accept big food-stamp cuts
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Dec 6 With a week left to act,
agricultural leaders in Congress are still deadlocked on two
major issues for a new U.S. farm bill, cuts in crop subsidies
and reductions in food stamps, said two of the four key
negotiators on Thursday.
But the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture
committees suggested that recent talks had yielded at least some
Without reauthorization, U.S. farm policy would revert to
the provisions of the Agricultural Act of 1949, the last
"permanent" farm bill and one crafted for an entirely different
Among other things, if lawmakers do not agree on a new
bill, milk prices in U.S. grocery stores could double next month
under terms of the fall-back statute which would also limit
plantings while pushing up farm subsidies by billions of
A new farm bill would now likely be absorbed into an overall
budget-cutting bill that could avert the looming "fiscal cliff"
of tax increases and spending cuts. Farm spending cuts of $23
billion to $35 billion have been floated.
In speeches at a farm policy conference in Washington on
Thursday, the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture
committees were adamant the final version of the five-year, $500
billion bill must include elements that are lightning rods for
Congress is scheduled to adjourn for the year on Dec. 14,
although top Republicans have said it will not adjourn until a
solution to the fiscal cliff has been announced.
"I would rather have nothing" than a farm bill that does not
give farmers the option of price supports, said House
Agriculture chairman Frank Lucas. "You need to give our
producers a choice."
The Senate version of the farm bill, passed in June with
proposed spending cuts totaling $23 billion, would replace
traditional farm subsidies with an insurance-like program that
compensates grain and oilseed growers when revenue from a crop
is more than 11 percent below average.
Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said on
Thursday that there were strong differences between the House
and Senate versions.
"I would never accept what the House did" in slashing $16
billion in funding for food stamps, the steepest cuts in a
generation for a program that helps millions of lower-income
Americans keep food on the table.
The Senate bill would cut food stamps by $4 billion.
Nonetheless, Lucas and Stabenow said a compromise may be
agreed upon in time to become part of a must-pass deficit bill.
An Oklahoma Republican, Lucas said "a lot of progress" has
been made in closed-door discussions among the four leaders of
the committees. Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, echoed that
"I am very encouraged by the negotiations ... If people of
good will sit around the table, you can work it out," she said.
There are some areas of agreement. Both sides would cut
conservation spending by $6 billion and crop subsidies by more
than $13 billion, partly by ending direct-payment subsidies now
issued regardless of need.
They also would expand the federally subsidized crop
insurance system, now the largest strand in the farm safety net,
and convert cotton subsidies to an insurance program, which
would resolve a World Trade Organization ruling against the U.S.
Still, farm subsidies and food stamps are the chief
disputes. And Lucas said a transition period may be needed to
allow time to put the new law into effect.
He left open the possibility of another round of the $5
billion-a-year direct payment program, depending on the savings
demanded by congressional leaders.
The precise target for farm spending cuts may be determined
as part of high-level deal-making between the White House and
Congress. The White House has suggested cuts of $32 billion, for
example, including reduction in crop insurance.