Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee says she is willing to consider higher cuts to the food stamp program in an effort to include a massive five-year farm bill in negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said that cuts to the food stamp program beyond the $4 billion over 10 years included in a Senate-passed farm bill "are something I am willing to talk about." A farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee would include $16 billion in cuts over the same amount of time.

Both amounts are relatively small in relation to the program's total estimated cost -- almost $800 billion over the next decade -- but Stabenow's willingness to move on an issue long sacred to Democrats shows progress in negotiations as farm-state leaders scramble to get the bill done before the end of the year. Stabenow and House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., met this week in hopes of reconciling their two versions of the bill.

The farm bill could be part of a deal to avert the combination of tax increases and automatic spending cuts due in January -- dubbed the fiscal cliff because the combination could plunge the economy into another recession -- because it saves money. A farm bill passed by the Senate in June would save a total of $23 billion over 10 years, while a version approved by the House Agriculture Committee in July would save $35 billion over the same period. Those total savings include the cuts to food stamps and also from farm subsidies.

Stabenow said in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday that she is also open to increasing the savings from $23 billion, saying it "depends on the policy."

While willing to compromise, Stabenow said there is "no way" she will agree to the level of food stamp cuts in the House bill. Unlike the Senate bill, the proposed House cuts would target practices by many states of waiving food stamp asset and income limits for people receiving other welfare benefits. More than 47 million people now receive food stamps, and money to pay for that program makes up 80 percent of the farm bill's cost.

Marrying the farm bill with the fiscal cliff negotiations is the farm bill's best hope of passage this year. The last farm bill, passed in 2008, expired in September, and if the agriculture committees have to start over next year they may have less money to deal with.

A deal on the fiscal cliff is far from set, however, and the farm leaders must wait for the White House and Republicans in Congress to agree on larger details before they know if farm policy will be involved. The agriculture committees must also resolve significant differences in how farm subsidies would be cut.

Stabenow said it is important for the agriculture committees to agree on a bipartisan policy "in a way that works for agriculture" before others start making decisions.

"They have to decide on the size of a larger package before they come to us," she said. "But we'll be ready."

Lucas said last week that Republican House leaders are now "consumed by the overall picture" and have not yet clarified how they want to proceed on agriculture policy. House leaders have so far been lukewarm on a farm bill, saying it doesn't have enough votes to go to the House floor. The main source of friction has been food stamps, as some conservatives said the bill needs to make deeper cuts in that program.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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