By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers writing the final version of the new U.S. farm bill should reject the "hatchet" cuts that House Republicans want to make to food stamps for the poor, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday.
Food stamps, which account for the bulk of spending in the $500 billion bill, are the make-or-break issue for the farm bill, which is already more than a year overdue.
"We are not going to be doing $40 billion, or even $20 billion," Vilsack said at the Washington Ideas Forum, listing cuts proposed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. At one point, Vilsack said "the House version ... takes a hatchet" to food stamps.
The Democrat-run Senate offered $4.5 billion in cuts over 10 years in its farm bill. The House proposed $39 billion, nearly 10 times the Senate's figure, after conservative Republicans helped defeat a bill that called for $20 billion in savings. The White House has threatened to veto a bill with large cuts.
Farm lobbyists said there was little progress toward a compromise farm bill since the House and Senate formally opened talks on October 30. There was no impetus to resolve disputes such as crop support rates that might become bargaining chips in working out a food stamp agreement, they said.
Work also was handicapped by lack of a budget target, still being negotiated by another select House-Senate panel.
"You can't make deals when you don't know what the number is," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the small-farm group National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Overall, the farm bill would save an estimated $23 billion if it follows the outlines of the Senate bill and $55 billion if the House bill is the template, the major difference being the size of food stamp cuts. Both bills would end the $5 billion-a-year "direct payment" subsidy and expand taxpayer subsidized crop insurance by $1 billion a year.
Roughly one in seven Americans receive food stamps to assist in purchasing basic foodstuffs. Enrollment has doubled since 2004 and the cost of the program has nearly tripled.
Republicans such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor say the program is an unaffordable burden while defenders say the high enrollment is a sign of a weak economic recovery.
"People get fixated on the (budget) number when what we should be talking about is policy," said Vilsack.
He said the farm bill should require states to do a better job of helping food stamp recipients find jobs rather than cut off benefits. The House bill would put stricter limits on how long able-bodied adults without children can receive food stamps and end a provision that allows benefits to people with slightly larger assets than the usual cut-off point.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott, editing by G Crosse)