Congress’ next big fight: Food stamps

The Christmas tree in front of the US Capitol. Congress has a big deadline over the holidays to pass a farm bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

House and Senate negotiators plan to meet again this week in hopes of finishing another complicated piece of legislation before a critical, fast-approaching deadline.

In this case it is the farm bill, an omnibus measure that sets federal agricultural policy and spending on food aid. The legislation is one of several items lawmakers hope to cross off their to-do list in the coming weeks, including a new budget agreement, a defense authorization bill and the confirmation of top Obama administration appointees.

Failure to meet a Jan. 1 deadline won’t rattle stock markets or spoil the nation’s credit rating, but a new farm bill is more than two years overdue, and congressional leaders have so far been unwilling to consider passing another short-term extension.

Failure to meet the deadline or pass a stopgap measure would mean that “breakfast in the United States is going to be significantly more expensive,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned in a recent interview.

The Agriculture Department is preparing to take steps that could prompt a series of changes affecting several commodities and grocery prices. Changes could begin shortly after New Year’s Day with the price of milk, which could rise to more than $3 per gallon because federal dairy policy would revert to a 1949 law.

Vilsack has warned that congressional inaction would eventually affect the price and supply of other staples, including rice, wheat and corn.

But there seems to be little worry on Capitol Hill because lead negotiators believe they can meet the deadline and some of their aides suggest privately that a new farm bill could be passed as part of a broader budget agreement, which must be enacted by Jan. 15 to avoid another government shutdown.

On Monday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., didn’t rule out packaging a farm bill with other must-pass legislation.

“I’m taking this one step at a time. That’s how we’ve gotten as far as we’ve gotten,” she said in an interview. “I believe this can be done by the end of this year if there’s the political will to do it.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., was traveling Monday and unavailable for comment.

Stabenow and the lead Republican on her committee, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., plan to cut short their two-week Senate recess and return to Washington to meet with Lucas and other House negotiators Wednesday. They hope to complete a bill by next week, according to aides familiar with the talks.

“I think we’ve got all the elements. We just need to get people to agree,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a senior member of the negotiating group.

Hoeven said Monday that most of the disagreement still focuses on funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more widely known as food stamps. Almost 48 million Americans were using the program this summer, according to the Agriculture Department, up from about 46.2 million two years ago.

In the summer, the Senate approved cutting about $4 billion in SNAP money over the next decade, mostly by trimming administrative expenses and bolstering anti-fraud protections. But the House voted to cut almost $40 billion in funding over the same period, mostly by rewriting eligibility rules for beneficiaries.

Stabenow, Hoeven and other lawmakers are pushing to ensure that roughly $11 billion in savings from the expiration of a temporary food stamp program created by the 2009 economic stimulus program are included in the overall savings generated by the final measure.

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