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Hoeven says SNAP is key to farm bill

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., addresses a room full of state agriculture leaders during a round table forum Tuesday.

BISMARCK -- U.S. Sen. John Hoeven said Tuesday the key to getting a five-year farm bill passed in Congress hinges on working with the House on reductions to the food stamp program.

But it remains to be seen how easy that may be. The Senate is proposing to reduce the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $4 billion. A House bill that sought $20 billion in cuts failed, and the House later passed a farm bill that did not include the food stamp program. A separate proposal addressing SNAP is slated to be voted on once Congress returns from the August recess.

Hoeven, R-N.D., broke down these differences, among others, between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill to more than 25 state agriculture leaders during a roundtable discussion he sponsored at Bismarck State College.

Hoeven is one of the Senate conference committee members who will reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills.

He said $8 billion to $10 billion in reductions is a reasonable compromise.

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it includes a large reduction to the food stamp program and if it is not included in the comprehensive farm bill.

But although the president "offers vetoes on many different things, that doesn't mean he will do it," Hoeven said. "If we come to a compromise, I don't think he will."

While the House and Senate largely differ on how much the food stamp program should be cut, Hoeven said Congress shouldn't be hung up on the estimated reduction numbers and should rather focus on the economy and getting people back to work.

"We have to have underlying reforms that create good public policy and getting the economy going," he said. "That is where you generate the real savings."

Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said he is hearing from a majority of the union's 40,000 family farm members throughout North Dakota that they want the farm and nutrition programs bundled together.

"Our members need to help (Congress) better understand that a strong farm and nutrition title tied together brings us a lot of whole safe supply of food," he said. "There's a disconnect at how important this farm program is to help deliver that to the American consumer."

Barth plans to take 70 members to Washington in early September to "educate members of Congress."

He said he is "cautiously optimistic" the bill will be completed in the next few months, with his members wanting the certainty that comes with the farm programs and pricing in the bill.

"Farmers are always looking to the future. We need the certainty of the five-year farm bill to allow them better planning, working with creditors and making sure they can bring this all together," Barth said.

On Monday, in an address to a group in Bismarck, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the Senate's version of the bill is "pretty good."

But like Hoeven, Heitkamp hopes to change the Senate bill, which links conservation land to crop insurance. Hoeven proposed an amendment to remove the provision, but it failed.

Hoeven will hold another farm bill roundtable discussion at 10:30 a.m. today with Fargo-area agriculture leaders at the Agricultural Experiment Station Research Greenhouse Complex on the North Dakota State University campus.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.