After a year-plus delay, House and Senate negotiators finally met Wednesday to begin hammering out a five-year "farm bill" that would set the nation's agricultural policies and fund the food stamp program.
But with billions of dollars separating the two chambers' food stamp spending plans — typically included in farm bills — negotiations aren't expected to be easy.
Farm bills usually are among the most bipartisan legislative endeavors in Congress, as lawmakers from farm states, regardless of party, work to ensure their success and those from urban areas lend their support because of the food stamp provisions.
But since last year, when the House failed to even bring a farm bill to the floor for a vote, conservative Republicans have pushed for deep spending cuts to the food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Both chambers have passed five-year, $500 billion farm bills that include agriculture subsidies and farmers’ insurance programs. But the Republican-controlled House wants $4 billion in annual food stamp cuts — a tenth of the cuts the Democratic-run Senate has proposed for the $80 billion-a-year program.
The most recent long-term farm bill expired last year after a similar impasse, and a one-year extension ran out Oct. 1 — leaving farmers without a federal safety net at the height of the harvest season.
"Our farmers and ranchers are being made to endure enormous economic uncertainty at a time when they can least afford it," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Nothing less than 16 million agricultural jobs hang in the balance."
The meeting, which was little more than an opportunity for committee members to give general opening statements, included no specific proposals. No subsequent meeting has been scheduled.
Still, just agreeing on a conference committee was seen as a positive step, the negotiators say.
"Consensus has proven to be an elusive goal at times in Congress, but it is a word that underscores the work we do in the agriculture community every day," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla.
"If the conference committee is left alone and allowed to do our work, we’ll be able to find some middle ground and finish the farm bill," added Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House agriculture panel. "We’ve been working on this bill for so long I think we’re actually at a point where most of the staff work is done."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., one of the bill's negotiators, said she hopes the conference committee will show the public that Congress can put partisan differences aside to advance legislation.
"In the middle of the chaos of the last month comes opportunity," she said. "This will really be a test of the House of whether they are willing to work with us."
Meanwhile, beginning Friday, food stamp recipients will see a separate, unrelated cut in their monthly benefits as temporary food stamp benefits from the 2009 economic stimulus packages expires. The 5 percent cut means a family of four on food stamps will get $36 less every month, the Agriculture Department says.
This story was first published at 7 p.m. on Oct. 30.