Farm-bill conferees are discussing setting the level of food-stamp reductions at about $10 billion over the next decade, a compromise between the Senate's proposed $4 billion cut and the House's $39 billion in savings.
But that final number could change depending on what policy strings will have to be attached to such a deal to get House conservatives to go along--and any such moves would have to steer clear of alienating too many House and Senate Democrats.
Adding to the complexity is that some Democrats now argue that a $10 billion cut to food stamps would, in reality, represent only part of a larger reduction that is already taking place. They suggest that $11 billion in other savings over the next three years tied to the Nov. 1 expiration of a temporary boost to food-stamp benefits under the 2009 stimulus law should also be counted.
"That means we've already absorbed a double-digit cut even before the farm bill is negotiated," said one Democratic source. The $4 billion cut contained in the Senate bill would--under this argument--then make the Senate's starting offer a $15 billion reduction. But Republicans don't go along with that.
That gap between the Senate and House approaches to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is one of the big hurdles, if not the biggest, in conferees reaching some deal on an overall farm-bill reauthorization.
In all, SNAP spending represents about 79 percent of total spending outlays under the bill for agriculture and nutrition programs--about $764 billion out of the $973 billion authorized through the next decade. More than 47 million Americans--one in seven--benefit from food stamps.
Those with knowledge of the ongoing House and Senate talks say negotiators are trying to find a level of cuts that would maintain support from House and Senate Democrats, including progressives, but also capture enough backing in a floor vote of conservatives in the House.
Overall, a $10 billion figure in 10-year SNAP savings would more than double the $4 billion cut in the Senate bill passed earlier this year under the guidance of Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
But that may not be such a heavy lift. The additional $6 billion savings above the Senate-proposed level could mostly be paid through a further tweak in how SNAP benefits would be calculated, from a change that has already been incorporated in the Senate bill.
The SNAP statute now allows for certain deductions in calculating a household's benefit level--including a shelter deduction that incorporates utility costs. That means that if a family receives benefits through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), this deduction allows for a higher food-stamp benefit for the household. Both the Senate and the House bills this year seek to limit this type of deduction, which has been referred to as the "eat-and-heat" loophole to qualify for additional benefits.
The Senate bill raises the minimum heating assistance to qualify from $1 annually to $10 annually, to get to its $4 billion in food-stamp savings. The House bill raises that to $20 annually to get to about $8.7 billion in food-stamp savings.
That move is seen as likely drawing some Democratic opposition, but not enough to kill the idea, and it would accomplish a bulk of the savings needed to get to $10 billion.
Of course, the Senate is only half of the equation. An initial House version of the bill would have cut $20 billion from the food-stamp program, rather than the $39 billion cut later approved. But it died on the floor from lack of support, with conservative Republicans saying that it cut too little.
Still, efforts now to pursue a two-chamber deal that could bring the even smaller cut of about $10 billion are not seen as necessarily quixotic. That's because the talks are also described by sources as encompassing consideration of some of the policy changes sought by House Republicans.
Those GOP proposals include requirements for people to find a job or enroll in work-training programs to get benefits. Republicans also are pushing to allow states to drug-test SNAP applicants, a requirement seen as something that would deter some people from pursuing benefits. And they would eliminate the option states have of seeking a waiver from rules that require able-bodied adults to work or participate in job training to get extended food-stamp benefits.
Stabenow has made it clear she is open to looking at ways to tighten up programs and find savings by targeting fraud and abuse, but also that she will not make arbitrary cuts that take away food from people.