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Harkin: Farm bill negotiating starting

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the members of the House-Senate conference committee trying to write a final farm bill, said Thursday that the chairs and ranking members of both chambers' agriculture committees are meeting in Washington and have started to iron out differences.

"The big issues are still to be decided yet," he told

"Right now, they're doing what, as a former chairman, I always called clearing the underbrush," he said.

He said he agrees with the approach of having just the leaders negotiating differences between the bills and keeping other members on the conference committee informed. That's what Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) is doing, he said. She and her committee's ranking Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, have been meeting with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-MN).

Harkin said that so far, they've been focusing on differences between the two bills in the sections dealing with energy, conservation, and rural development.

Both bills have an energy title, but only the Senate bill makes spending on it mandatory.

Harkin said that including money for the energy title, which promotes development of advanced biofuels, "is something I feel strongly about. Stabenow knows that. She's been a strong supporter, too."

Harkin also laid out his negotiating position on cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

"The House position on cuts to the SNAP program are totally unacceptable," Harkin said. The House has passed a separate nutrition bill that would cut some $40 billion over 10 years from spending on what used to be called food stamps. That's about 10 times larger than a reduction in the farm bill that the Senate has passed.

"We're going to have to be very close to what the Senate is," said Harkin, who is also working to restore added spending on food stamps that was included in the economic stimulus bill passed shortly after President Barack Obama took office. The extra money expired this month, leaving recipients with 5% less. It's enough of a cut that some are hitting food banks two weeks after getting their monthly benefits instead of after three weeks, Harkin said.

Harkin said that the Senate farm bill's $4 billion cut to food stamps over 10 years had bipartisan support.

"What the House has to decide is do they want a farm bill or not," Harkin said. "If they hold to a $40 billion cut, there will not be a farm bill."

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