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Negotiators unveil new farm bill; vote expected this week

Updated 9:07 p.m.

Negotiators agreed Monday evening on a new five-year farm bill that slashes about $23 billion in federal spending by ending direct payments to farmers, consolidating dozens of Agriculture Department programs and by cutting about $8 billion in food stamp assistance.

House leaders said they planned to pass the 950-page bill by Wednesday evening -- meaning that for the second time in two weeks lawmakers will vote on a bill running hundreds of pages just hours after its formal release. Congress already passed a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package this month within days of its release and with little formal debate.

But the farm bill is already more than two years overdue and a final version has been delayed for several weeks amid haggling over the finer details of government support programs for the dairy industry, concerns with payments to the managers and owners of family farms and labeling for livestock born in other countries but slaughtered in the United States.

The agreement cuts about $19 billion in farm programs, including the end of direct payments to farmers -- some of whom weren't actually farming at all. The program has existed since the 1990s and has been singled out by President Obama and members of both parties in recent years as a prime example of government inefficiency. Another $6 billion will be saved by cutting from 23 to 13 the number of conservation programs operated by the Agriculture Department and its agencies. Another $8 billion will be saved by closing loopholes and ending other misuse of the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Supporters said the measure will slash billions of dollars and help support 16 million jobs in the agriculture industry -- making it the only bipartisan, money-saving jobs bill to pass Congress in recent years.

"We never lost sight of the goal; we never wavered in our commitment to enacting a five-year, comprehensive farm bill," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) said Monday night as he asked colleagues for support.

“This bill proves that by working across party lines, we can reform programs to save taxpayer money while strengthening efforts to grow our economy," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in a statement.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced support for the legislation and said the House would vote on the bill Wednesday. Boehner called the deal "a positive step in the right direction" while Cantor said, "This was not an easy task, and it took hard work to arrive here."

Both leaders have expressed concerns with the size and scope of previous farm bills and their tepid support Monday evening signals that many fiscal conservatives will be unhappy that the new agreement doesn't go farther to reduce spending, especially to SNAP.

Over the summer, the House voted to slash about $40 billion over the next decade from the program. The Democratic-controlled Senate voted over the summer to cut only $4 billion. The final agreement achieves savings by tweaking a loophole in a federal heating assistance program that has allowed about a dozen states to pay out as little as $1 to some recipients and boost that person's eligibility for food aid. The changes will require states to pay more in order to qualify people for "heat and eat" benefits and will reduce, but not eliminate, SNAP payments by about $90 monthly for about 850,000 households.

The bill also for the first time establishes pilot programs to encourage food stamp recipients to seek jobs and bars USDA from using money to recruit new beneficiaries or to advertise the program on television, radio and billboards. Addressing years of documented evidence of misuse and abuse of the program, USDA will need to ensure that illegal immigrants, lottery winners, college students and the dead cannot receive food stamps and that people cannot collect benefits in multiple states.

Advocates for low-income families blasted the deal Monday as unfair to the nation's poorest and several urban state lawmakers have said they likely will vote against the overall bill because of the food stamp cuts.

"Only in Washington could a final bill that doubles the already egregious cuts to hungry families while somehow creating less total savings than originally proposed be called progress," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Monday evening in announcing her opposition to the overall bill.

For the first time, the bill authorizes colleges and universities to grow industrial hemp for research purposes in states that permit growth and cultivation of the plant. Currently 11 states -- Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia -- have such laws. Aides noted that the new hemp-themed provisions are among hundreds of policy and spending details buried in the legislation, but the decision is likely to contribute to a growing national debate about the legalization of marijuana both for medicinal and recreational purposes.

Industry groups said Monday night that they were reviewing the legislation, and while the agreement is expected to upset some associations for different reasons, several signaled early support Monday evening, as did organizations pushing for changes to foreign food aid included in the bill.

"The bill is a compromise," said Ray Gaesser, president of the American Soybean Association. "It ensures the continued success of American agriculture, and we encourage both the House and the Senate to pass it quickly."