By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican-controlled House will try to cut billions of dollars from the food stamp program before negotiating an overall farm bill with the Senate, the House majority leader said on Thursday two months before the current farm law expires.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the House "eventually" would open final-round discussions with the Senate on a farm bill that could cost $100 billion a year.
The current farm law expires on Sept 30. Congress has 12 days of work scheduled before then, mostly because of a five-week summer recess. Without a new law, farm subsidies will revert to sky-high levels dictated by a 1949 law and the price of milk at the grocery store could double.
Food stamps traditionally are part of farm bills. They are the largest hurdle to a new farm law, already nine months behind schedule. The new farm bill is expected to expand the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance system.
Cantor said, during an exchange with the No. 2 Democrat Steny Hoyer, that there have been closed-door meetings among House Republicans to find consensus on food stamps. Fiscally conservative Republicans helped defeat a farm bill in June because they wanted deeper cuts than the $20 billion - largest in a generation - that were proposed. Two meetings have not yielded a plan.
"We are now engaged in discussions ... on a nutrition piece so that we can, yes, act again on that," Cantor said after Hoyer asked when the House would negotiate with the Senate.
"So, I would say ... it is not accurate that we don't intend to eventually go to conference and iron out the differences between the House and Senate on both of those issues, on the ag policy as well as the nutrition policies," said Cantor.
Farm lobbyists said it appeared unlikely House-Senate negotiations would begin before the August recess.
Florida Republican Steve Southerland, who was part of Cantor's working group on food stamps, said on Wednesday, "I don't think this will be done before Sept 30."
Another conservative Republican, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, said he was worried a House-Senate deal on food stamps would be reached before the House voted on a Republican-written bill. Some Republicans would cut food stamps by more than $100 billion over 10 years and tighten eligibility rules.
"There have been no discussions in the (Republican) conference on how we get to 218" votes, the minimum needed to pass a food stamp bill, said Huelskamp.
While House Republicans seek large cuts, the Senate passed a farm bill in June that would trim a comparatively small $4 billion. Analysts say it will be difficult to write food stamp provisions that both chambers will accept.
"I doubt we can get support in the Senate for saving $20 billion," said Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, who wants food stamp reform.
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas, who would be in charge of House-Senate negotiations on a farm bill, said in a broadcast interview on Wednesday there was no consensus among House Republicans on food stamp cuts. If there is no agreement by next week, he said, the House should begin discussions with the Senate.
(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)