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White House keeps up food stamp pressure on Congress

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The Obama administration kept pressure on Congress on Tuesday to pass a new multi-year farm bill without resorting to the steep cuts in food stamp funding contained in the version approved by the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Lawmakers are on recess this week for the Thanksgiving holiday. Two days of talks among Congress' top agricultural negotiators last week failed to close the gap on food stamps between Republicans and the Democratic-run Senate, whose version proposes much smaller cuts.

The House wants the biggest cuts in a generation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), some $39 billion over 10 years. The Senate would achieve about $4 billion in savings by tweaking certain subsidies on utility bills available to SNAP recipients.

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The White House issued a report on Tuesday that highlighted the importance of nutrition assistance as being among the most effective tools against poverty and hunger.

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Every dollar in SNAP funding generates up to $1.80 in economic activity for the more than 230,000 retail food outlets that are part of the program, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said on a call with reporters.

"There is a strong connection both in the economic benefits for those that produce food, and the economic benefits for those that will use SNAP to purchase that food," Sperling said.

The most recent monthly figures showed that more than 47.6 million Americans, or almost one in seven, were enrolled in SNAP during August, the 13th consecutive month over 47 million, drawing an average monthly benefit of $133.07.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a think tank, said this month that SNAP enrollment rose because of the 2008-09 recession and high jobless rates. Average monthly participation was 26 million in 2007, jumping to 40 million by 2010. But the Center looks for food stamp costs to fall steadily from 2013 onward as the economy improves.

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A large majority of food stamp recipients are children, the elderly or people with disabilities, including nearly one million military veterans.

Legislation passed by the House in October would cut the ranks of SNAP recipients by about 3.8 million in 2014 by tightening rules for eligibility, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor spearheaded the plan for a sweeping change to food stamps, saying the program was an unaffordable burden on middle-class Americans.

The White House this year has twice threatened to veto a farm bill containing anything like the cuts wanted by the House, but Sperling suggested that the smaller Senate cuts might be palatable.

"This administration is generally supportive of the bipartisan compromise that was worked out in the Senate bill," Sperling said. The White House issued a statement of support when the Senate bill passed in June.

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Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said that the administration is hopeful that various "traditional agricultural issues" can be solved by farm bill negotiators. "But there is still a very big difference in views on the SNAP program," she added.

By Reuters