By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The final stage of the long-delayed U.S. farm bill is about to begin, but drafting a legislative compromise between the Senate and House of Representatives is still hampered by deep partisan divisions over cuts in food stamps for the poor.
Lawmakers in the House agreed on Friday to open negotiations with the Senate over a final version of the five-year, $500 billion bill. Its salient agricultural initiative, but one that is mostly not controversial, is an expansion of federally subsidized crop insurance by 10 percent.
The major dispute in the bill is food stamps, which help low-income Americans, mostly children, the elderly or disabled, to buy food. The latest figures show a near-record 47.8 million people received benefits averaging $133 a month.
The Republican-controlled House wants to cut the major U.S. antihunger program by $39 billion over a decade, nearly 10 times the reduction proposed by the Democrat-run Senate. The tighter eligibility rules in the House plan would cut 4 million people from the program in 2014.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was the leading proponent of the cuts. Another prominent supporter, Steve Southerland of Florida, was expected to be named one of the House negotiators as a signal of Republican resolve to see major reforms.
"We believe by reforming food stamps we will save the program for the truly needy," Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican said on Friday.
House Democrats regard the Republican cuts as cold-hearted and putting an undue burden on recipients.
Jim Clyburn of South Carolina cited language to require food stamp applicants to take a drug test and suggested, "you ought to test all those people getting farm subsidies and see if they are deserving of federal benefits."
In a tactical move, House Republicans would split the farm bill in two for review in the future. The food stamp program would be considered every three years, while agricultural programs would be on a five-year cycle.
Conservatives say it will be easier to win reforms under that format. Nutrition and farm subsidy programs have been tied together since the 1970s, creating a coalition of farm-state and urban lawmakers.
Colin Peterson of Minnesota, the Democratic leader on the House Agriculture Committee, said the division could mean the end of farm bills as they have been known until now.
"We need a full conference to work out some big differences," conceded Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Congress is a year behind schedule in writing a successor to the 2008 farm law, which expired a year ago and was revived early this year. It died again at the same time the government went into a partial shutdown.
"The big question is if we're going to get a new farm bill," said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group. "I think there's a long way to go from where we are today to a farm bill that can pass on the floor of the Senate and the House."
Democrats voted en masse against food stamp cuts. Tea Party-influenced Republicans assured defeat of the original House farm bill in June because they wanted deeper cuts than the $20 billion proposed. It was the first time the House defeated a farm bill.
Among agricultural provisions, the most contentious are likely to be Senate proposals to require farmers to practice soil conservation to qualify for premium subsidies on crop insurance, and to require the wealthiest growers, with more than $750,000 adjusted gross income a year, to pay a larger share of the premium. The House has rejected similar ideas.
Crop insurance is the largest part of the farm safety net, costing about $9 billion a year.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott. Editing by Ros Krasny)