U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress to break a logjam and pass a reform-minded farm bill, but two lobbyists said the deadlocked $500 billion bill may not be enacted for months, or even a year.
Vilsack, who is expected to stay at USDA for at least the start of President Barack Obama's second term, told Reuters the department "would do everything we can" to implement a new farm bill in time for the 2013 harvest next fall.
With deficit reduction at the top of the agenda for lawmakers during a brief post-election session, Vilsack said "reform becomes a very important component" for the farm bill, already six weeks overdue.
Months ago Obama suggested $33 billion in agricultural cuts, and analysts say the best chance to pass a farm bill this year would be to use its budget cuts as part of an overall plan to reduce the federal deficit.
But they see little chance of a budget pact and say the farm bill is a minor issue for lawmakers to spend time on, compared to looming automatic budget cuts and tax increases.
FOOD STAMPS A KEY ISSUE
Potential changes in agricultural committee assignments in Congress could also slow the path to a farm bill.
Written every few years, farm bills are panoramic legislation that range from production subsidies and soil conservation efforts to food aid, agricultural research and rural economic development. Food stamps account for three-quarters of the spending.
If the House debates the farm bill, Ohio Republican Jim Jordan said he would seek a vote to separate food stamps from the rest of the bill. The step would break a decades-old urban-rural coalition and could fit into a Republican plan to convert food stamps into a block grant to states.
The Senate passed its version of the farm bill in mid June but work on the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in late July.
The House Agriculture Committee's bill would make the deepest cuts in food stamps in a generation, four times more than the Senate version.
Vilsack declined during an interview to suggest a limit on food stamp cuts, in favor of direct discussions with lawmakers.
"I am concerned there is a lack of clarity on the part of House Republican leadership on how much of a priority this is," he said. "Our role is to see the reforms that are enacted do not undercut the purpose of (food stamps) or any other program."
Against the odds, a final version of the bill could still materialize in the next few weeks, Vilsack said, adding, "This town works best when there is a deadline."