WASHINGTON -- A program that puts billions of dollars in the pockets of farmers whether or not they plant a crop may disappear with hardly a protest from them and the politicians who look out for their interests.

The Senate is expected to begin debate this week on a five-year farm and food aid bill that would save $9.3 billion by replacing direct payments to farmers with subsidized insurance programs for when the weather turns bad or prices go south.

There is rare agreement that fixed annual subsidies of $5 billion a year for farmers are no longer feasible in this age of tight budgets and with farmers in general enjoying record prosperity.

About 80 percent of the half-trillion-dollar cost over the next five years represents nutrition plans, primarily food stamps for 46 million people. About $100 billion would be for crop subsidies and other farm programs.

Last month, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee approved a bill to save $23 billion over the next decade by ending direct payments and consolidating other programs. The bill would strengthen the subsidized crop insurance program and create a program to compensate farmers for smaller, or "shallow," revenue losses, based on a five-year average, for acres actually planted.

But getting a bill to the president's desk will be a challenge. Most of the bill's spending is on food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, at an annual cost of about $75 billion. The Republican-led House is looking for greater cuts to this program than the Democratic Senate will accept. -- AP

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