By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the House of Representatives may set aside a bill providing for the biggest reduction in food stamps for the poor since 1996, averting a fight over cuts that critics assail as immoral during hard times, House leaders said on Thursday.

Food stamps would see the largest cut, $16 billion over 10 years, in the House farm bill - $2 billion more than for farm subsidies and nearly half of all the savings in the bill.

The cuts, mostly in eligibility rules, are estimated to reduce enrollment by 5 percent. A near-record 46.2 million people, or one in seven Americans, received food stamps at latest count. Enrollment rises during economic distress, such as the current lingering high unemployment.

If enacted, the food stamp cuts would be the largest since $27 billion in a deficit-reduction package in 1996, said the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

House Speaker John Boehner, the senior Republican in Congress, said on Thursday that "an awful lot of good work" went into the bill. But he added there were "no decisions about it coming to the floor at this point."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who raised the question with Boehner privately, told reporters, "I don't know if it will even come to the House floor to be voted on." She said the cuts in the farm bill "are totally unacceptable."

The Democratic-led Senate included a $4 billion food-stamp cut in its farm bill passed last month. But the chamber soundly rejected the change in eligibility rules that is included in the bill in the Republican-led House.

Big cuts in food stamps are a goal for House Republicans, who voted in a budget bill early this year cut them by $33 billion, twice as much as the reduction proposed in the farm bill.

But the proposed cuts threaten a political headache for Republicans as Democrats itch for a fight over the issue ahead of the November 6 election.

SOME WANT DEEPER CUTS

Republican leaders also cannot be sure of enough support from their own members to pass the bill, with some Republicans wanting even deeper cuts to food stamps and farm subsidies.

"We have to stop these immoral cuts," Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro said on Thursday, pledging to fight them if they reach the floor.

During an Agriculture Committee marathon hearing that began to Wednesday to draft the farm bill, Republicans said the cuts were common-sense reforms to control an expensive program that cost $75.6 billion last year. Food stamps account for most of the $491 billion cost of the five-year farm bill.

"These cuts will mean less food for hungry Americans, period," said Democrat Jim McGovern, who tried to eliminate the cuts.

"I believe this is the direction we must go to restore confidence in these programs to our fellow citizens across the country," said Republican Frank Lucas, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.

Republicans wants to restrict use of so-called categorical eligibility for food stamps, which can allow people with high child-care and housing expenses to receive food stamps although their incomes might be slightly higher than the poverty line.

House Republicans say categorical eligibility, created under the 1996 Welfare Reform Law, allows unqualified people into the food stamp program. The Obama administration says the proposed Republican cut would push 3 million people out of the program, most of them elderly or poor working families with children.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Peter Cooney)