By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress will begin writing a new, $500 billion farm law next week, the head of the Senate Agriculture Committee said on Tuesday, even as calls mounted for deeper cuts in farm subsidies and food stamp spending.
The Senate panel has scheduled a bill-drafting session for May 14. Its House of Representatives counterpart, unofficially, aims to start writing its version on May 15.
The bills are expected to boost crop support rates, expand the crop insurance program, reduce the scope of land-idling programs and cut spending on food aid to the poor.
Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, has said the Senate bill would cut farm bill outlays by $23 billion over 10 years. The House bill is expected to aim for savings of $35 billion over a decade.
Passage of the farm bill is seven months overdue and counting, after an election-year stalemate in the House prevented passage of a bill last autumn.
Tea Party-influenced lawmakers in 2012 wanted to generate bigger cuts in spending while Democrats said the House bill cut food stamps too much.
Stabenow's proposal would shave $4 billion from food stamps, compared with the $20 billion that House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, has targeted.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand organized a letter, signed by 32 other senators, to cut crop insurance subsidies and avert any food stamp cuts.
Farm lobbyists said Stabenow was expected to propose higher "target" prices for grains and oilseeds, growing chiefly in the Midwest, to satisfy objections from Southern rice and peanut growers. The bill also would shield growers from fluctuations in crop revenue, an approach backed by corn and soybean growers.
Environmentalists say farmers should be required to practice soil conservation to qualify for federally subsidized crop insurance, now the largest part of the farm safety net. Growers collected a record $17 billion in payments for losses caused by the severe 2012 drought.
That idea gained traction this week. Farm groups said they would accept the linkage of insurance and so-called conservation compliance if environmentalists drop attempts to make the wealthiest farmers pay more for coverage. The government pays 62 cents of each $1 in insurance premiums.
Lawmakers began work on the farm bill three years ago. Farm bills are broad-spectrum legislation that cover crop subsidies, agricultural research, food stamps, farm exports, global food aid, rural economic development and biofuel development.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott; editing by Ros Krasny and Marguerita Choy)