WASHINGTON -- Cuts in food programs for the poor are getting support in Congress as an alternative to President Bush's idea of slicing billions of dollars from the payments that go to large farm operations.
Senior Republicans in both the House and Senate are open to small reductions in farm subsidies, but they adamantly oppose the deep cuts sought by Bush to hold down future federal deficits.
The president wants to lower the maximum subsidies that can be collected each year by any one farm operation from $360,000 to $250,000. He also asked Congress to cut by 5 percent all farm payments, and he wants to close loopholes that enable some growers to annually collect millions of dollars in subsidies.
Instead, Republican committee chairmen are looking to carve savings from nutrition and land conservation programs that are also run by the Agriculture Department. The government is projected to spend $52 billion this year on nutrition programs like food stamps, school lunches and special aid to low-income pregnant women and children. Farm subsidies will total less than half that, $24 billion.
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said the $36 billion food stamp program is a good place to look for savings.
"There's not the waste, fraud and abuse in food stamps that we used to see. ... That number is down to a little over 6 percent now," he said. "But there is a way, just by utilizing the president's numbers, that we can come up with a significant number there."
Bush is proposing to withdraw food stamps for certain families already receiving other government assistance. The administration estimates that plan would remove more than 300,000 people from the rolls and save $113 million annually.
Chambliss said minimal changes in all three areas of agriculture spending -- nutrition, farm supports and conservation -- could save what's needed. "I want this to be as painless to every farmer in America as we can make it," he said.
House budget writers this week reduced Agriculture Department spending for 2006 by $5.3 billion. Their counterparts in the Senate cut it by $2.8 billion. Bush's proposals would cut farm spending by $8 billion as calculated by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The House and Senate plan to vote on initial versions of the budget next week.
Anti-hunger and environmental groups are worried.
"Particularly in the House, the members are talking about taking all or most of it from nutrition," said Jim Weill, president of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center. "There isn't a way to do it that doesn't hurt, because the program's very lean and doesn't give people enough anyhow. The benefits are less than people need. The program's not reaching even three-fifths of the people who are eligible. And the abuse rate is very low and is going down further."
Eric Bost, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer programs, told a House appropriations panel this week the programs are so efficient now it would be difficult to save money by targeting waste and fraud.
Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said food stamps are vital to many Americans, "but like all government programs, there are ways to save money."
Chambliss and other Republicans say they are open to modest cuts in farm programs, such as a small across-the-board cut in all payments to growers. While budget writers and lawmakers from farm states oppose the deep cuts Bush wants, they still are very much on the table.
Before finalizing its budget plan, the Senate Budget Committee approved language saying Congress should follow Bush's plan for cutting the maximum payments any one farmer can receive. That would hurt cotton and rice growers in the South and California much more than wheat, soybean and corn growers in the farm belt.
"This amendment just makes sense," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who sponsored the measure with Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "Any reduction in farm spending should be achieved by better targeting farm program payments to small- and medium-sized farmers."
According to Agriculture Department estimates, 78 percent of subsidies go to 8 percent of producers.
There is wide support for a cap on subsidies. Both the House and Senate voted in favor of a strict $275,000 cap when lawmakers debated the 2002 farm bill. In an election-year compromise, House and Senate negotiators raised the ceiling to $360,000 and left loopholes intact.
"If you took a vote tomorrow, you'd have overwhelming support for the payment limit proposal," said Scott Faber, spokesman for the group Environmental Defense. "The overwhelming majority of farmers get less than $250,000 a year."
But the chairmen of the Senate and House agriculture committee are both southerners, as is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the actual spending decisions will be made. The appropriations chairman in the House is a Californian.