Farm Bill talks resume today among House, Senate negotiators

Top House and Senate negotiators plan to meet again Wednesday behind closed doors to try to reach agreement on a new Farm Bill as a Jan. 1 deadline fast approaches.

In Play's Jackie Kucinich breaks down the five big Farm Bill issues Congress needs to sort out before January. (The Washington Post)

The talks come while the Senate remains in recess, but Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who lead the Senate Agriculture Committee, agreed to return to Washington early to continue the negotiations in hopes that a bill might be ready as early as next week.

There is agreement over vast portions of the omnibus measure — including plans to end billions of dollars in direct payments to farmers — but significant differences remain in several key areas regarding new safety nets for commodities and funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.

Competing House and Senate proposals remain tens of billions of dollars apart — the Senate proposes slashing about $4 billion in SNAP funding over the next decade, while the House would cut nearly $40 billion.

Aides familiar with the talks said that one way negotiators hope to close that yawning gap is by focusing on what's known as "Heat and Eat."

For many people who receive food stamp money, the level of assistance is partially tied to federal home heating assistance through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. States participate in the program to keep low-income residents from being forced to choose between paying the heating bill or buying groceries in winter months. To ensure funding for heating and food, states are permitted to send heating assistance checks of as low as $1 to needy households, which qualifies them for a higher amount of SNAP benefits.

Acknowledging that there has been abuse in that program, negotiators are seeking to set a minimum amount of money that states must contribute in heating assistance, which in turn would reduce some payouts of SNAP benefits. The Senate's Farm Bill sets a $10 minimum "heat and eat" payment, while the House measure requires a $20 minimum for nearly $9 billion in savings.

If enacted, the changes would affect roughly 800,000 households, which would receive about $90 less annually, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

Failure to reach agreement on a new Farm Bill and enact new agricultural policy might eventually trigger what many call the "dairy cliff," or the resumption of price supports established in permanent agriculture law passed in 1938 and 1949 that would cause the price of milk to spike to more than $3 per gallon. Congressional aides say the spikes are unlikely, because it could take the Agriculture Department weeks to navigate regulatory rules and enact any changes.

But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned in an interview last week that he could move quickly.

“We have a pretty good sense of what we would need to do. We've reached out to some of the folks, particularly in the dairy industry, to get their views about this," Vilsack told a farming radio program. "So we would be in a position, in short order — I don't want to put a timeline on it — but in short order to get something done."

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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