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Farm Bill Could Hinge On Budget Talks

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., signaled her eagerness to pair the two bills with a statement Friday saying the farm bill's passage would be "a significant first step in meeting the critical deficit reduction challenges our country must face head-on this year."

Retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he has already started working on a compromise farm bill in an effort to move it alongside deficit reduction. Conrad, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee and sits on the Agriculture Committee, said he spent part of Congress' election recess consulting with Senate and House aides who worked on the legislation.

The House and Senate farm bills differ in how they address subsidies for farmers. But the biggest difference between the two versions is the amount cut from food stamps: The Democratic-led Senate's bill would cut $4 billion from the almost $800 billion program over 10 years; the GOP-led House's version would cut $16 billion.

Conrad said he has attempted to "take some sort of reasonable difference" between the House and Senate bills but would not provide details. He argues that next year's budget will be even worse and farm-state legislators will be forced to make even deeper cuts.

"Time is not on our side," he said. Next year's budget situation on farm programs will be "a big mess and it's infinitely better for everyone to get these decisions made now."

Farm groups are aggressively pushing a combination of the farm bill and the fiscal package, seeing the deficit reduction as the last, best vehicle to get the bill done this year.

"I think it's going to be very hard to get a farm bill done unless a decision is made very quickly to be part of a package," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Stallman said he thinks the bill can move very quickly once lawmakers find a compromise on the food stamp issue.

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