By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday urged Congress to break a logjam and pass a reform-minded farm bill, but two lobbyists said the deadlocked $500 billion bill may not be enacted for months, or even a year.
Vilsack, who is expected to stay at USDA for at least the start of President Barack Obama's second term, told Reuters the department "would do everything we can" to implement a new farm bill in time for the 2013 harvest next fall.
With deficit reduction at the top of the agenda for lawmakers during a brief post-election session, Vilsack said "reform becomes a very important component" for the farm bill, already six weeks overdue.
Months ago Obama suggested $33 billion in agricultural cuts, and analysts say the best chance to pass a farm bill this year would be to use its budget cuts as part of an overall plan to reduce the federal deficit.
But they see little chance of a budget pact and say the farm bill is a minor issue for lawmakers to spend time on, compared to looming automatic budget cuts and tax increases.
FOOD STAMPS A KEY ISSUE
Potential changes in agricultural committee assignments in Congress could also slow the path to a farm bill.
Written every few years, farm bills are panoramic legislation that range from production subsidies and soil conservation efforts to food aid, agricultural research and rural economic development. Food stamps account for three-quarters of the spending.
If the House debates the farm bill, Ohio Republican Jim Jordan said he would seek a vote to separate food stamps from the rest of the bill. The step would break a decades-old urban-rural coalition and could fit into a Republican plan to convert food stamps into a block grant to states.
The Senate passed its version of the farm bill in mid June but work on the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in late July.
The House Agriculture Committee's bill would make the deepest cuts in food stamps in a generation, four times more than the Senate version.
Vilsack declined during an interview to suggest a limit on food stamp cuts, in favor of direct discussions with lawmakers.
"I am concerned there is a lack of clarity on the part of House Republican leadership on how much of a priority this is," he said. "Our role is to see the reforms that are enacted do not undercut the purpose of (food stamps) or any other program."
Against the odds, a final version of the bill could still materialize in the next few weeks, Vilsack said, adding, "This town works best when there is a deadline."
Some farm groups say Congress will extend the 2008 farm law, which expired on Oct 1, for as long as a year as a stop-gap.
It will be "incredibly difficult" to wrap up a bill in three or four weeks, said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. He called for attention to issues such as disaster aid, that should not be overlooked in an extension.
Mary Kay Thatcher of the 6-million-member American Farm Bureau Federation, said that a one-year extension of the current bill was most likely, with a six-month extension possible too.
Mississippi Sen Thad Cochran could replace Pat Roberts of Kansas as the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which could affect work on the farm bill if it is delayed into 2013.
Roberts took a lead on the Senate farm bill which would eliminate traditional crop subsidies. But southern Senators including Georgia's Saxby Chambliss said the plan was unfair to rice and peanut growers.
Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, is expected to return as the Senate Agriculture chairwoman. Frank Lucas, Oklahoma Republican, was expected to serve a second term as House Agriculture chairman.
(Reporting By Charles Abbott and Richard Cowan in Washington and Christine Stebbins in Chicago; editing by Ros Krasny and Bob Burgdorfer)