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Deal on farm bill nearly complete

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Negotiations are almost complete on a long-overdue farm bill that will set new spending levels for the federal food stamp program but add another wrinkle to the national debate over income inequality as Congress mulls how to help unemployed and low-wage workers.

Leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees had planned to announce a deal on a new multiyear farm bill on Wednesday, but aides familiar with the talks said any such announcement may be pushed into next week because of differences about price controls on the nation's dairy industry.

The delay occurs as the Senate is debating a bipartisan proposal to extend unemployment benefits and congressional Democrats prepare for a push to increase the federal minimum wage.

Whenever the agreement is reached, as expected, it will be “one of the bipartisan highlights” of the congressional year, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told reporters this week.

The farm bill affects about 16 million agricultural sector jobs nationwide, but most of the measure's costs are tied to food stamps.

Plans call for eliminating about $9 billion in funding for food stamps — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — during the next decade, according to several aides familiar with the negotiations who are not authorized to speak publicly about the details.

Aides said House and Senate lawmakers sought cuts to SNAP by focusing on what they call the “heat-and-eat” loophole.

In more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia, the level of assistance provided to some SNAP beneficiaries is tied to eligibility for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Such payments are usually made to apartment dwellers whose utility costs are included in monthly rent payments. To keep such low-income residents from choosing in winter months between paying a heating bill or buying groceries, the states provide minimal LIHEAP payments, often as low as $1, making them eligible for higher SNAP payments.

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