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Key lawmakers meet ahead of deadline for new farm bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With a deadline looming, the four top agricultural negotiators in Congress met for nearly two hours late on Wednesday without reaching agreement on a $500 billion U.S. farm bill, and they will try again on Thursday morning, the lawmakers said.

The leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives agriculture committees, leaving Capitol Hill, told reporters they made progress during the session and that talks were moving in the right direction.

Policy disputes remain centered on a handful of issues including Republican demands for sweeping cuts in food stamps for the poor.

The lawmakers have an informal end-of-the-week deadline to agree on the five-year bill. If they reach a framework on Thursday or Friday, they would be in a position to ask for a vote on the bill during the final weeks of work for Congress in 2013.

After this week, the House plans to be in session for two weeks and the Senate for slightly longer before adjourning for the year. Congress will be in recess next week for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Congress is more than a year late in writing the bill due to insistence by conservative House Republicans on large cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, which helps low-income Americans buy groceries.

Republicans voted down a bill in June - the first defeat for a farm bill in the House - because they wanted deeper cuts than those on offer.

Besides food stamps, the House and Senate disagree on crop subsidy reforms, the creation of a new dairy support program, whether to require farmers to practice conservation to qualify for subsidized crop insurance, and foreign food aid reform.

For farmers, the centerpiece of the bill would be an expansion of taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance by $1 billion a year, or 10 percent. It would shift the focus of the farm program to protection of farmer revenue, with the government assuring up to 90 percent of average revenue.

The Senate bill would save $23 billion over 10 years, chiefly by trimming crop subsidies and conservation programs. The House bill would save more than twice as much, with food stamps accounting for most of the savings.

(Reporting by Charles Abbott, Editing by Ros Krasny and Mohammad Zargham)

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