MOUNT VERNON, Ill. — Though political differences continue to stall passage of a farm bill, there is at least a modicum of hope that some contentious issues soon may be resolved.

University of Illinois farm economist Jonathon Coppess recently provided an update on progress of the stalled legislation that will guide farm policy over the next five years. Despite some narrowing of differences, a gap remains.

The root of the dispute lies in the differing ideas between Democrats and Republicans on how to tackle federal deficits, Coppess told farmers gathered at an ag economic summit here.

“The biggest problem we’ve had goes back to 2011 when the entire focus of Congress has been budget issues — reducing spending and reducing the debt and deficit,” he said. “The farm bill just happened to have its five-year renewal authorization line up perfectly with that focus.

“That’s created a big political mountain to climb, when you’re trying to cut spending, re-authorize programs and not anger everybody to the point they don’t vote for it. Budget challenges are immense. Writing the farm bill while trying to cut spending doesn’t exactly get you a lot of friends and allies.”

Bills passed by the House and Senate are in conference committee, where they must be folded into a single piece of legislation to be offered for President Obama’s signature. The major sticking point remains the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly referred to as food stamps.

The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate are far apart on funding for SNAP over the next 10 years.

The House bill carves nearly $40 billion out of the program over the next decade, while the Senate bill shaves about $4 billion. But the dollar amount may not be the biggest disagreement.

“The best way to describe the two differences is actually not dollars — it’s how you get there,” Coppess said.

SNAP reductions in the Senate bill are accomplished by benefit cuts, while the House bill calls for an overhaul of the program itself.

“In the Senate, the reductions in SNAP come solely from reducing benefits that some people receive,” Coppess said. “Nobody is kicked out of the program and nobody is prevented from getting into the program who would be otherwise eligible. All you’re doing is reducing from some individuals the amount they would receive.

“The House is completely different. They’re actually reducing the number of people. It’s not just reducing benefits — it’s reducing beneficiaries. That’s your big, political brouhaha, with millions of individuals kicked out of the program. That creates a series of political problems.”

Coppess said that the issue may be settled soon, closer to the Senate version.

“Whether that holds or not is a big question,” he said. “This House has strong opposition to higher numbers. It could still be a rocky road.”

Despite differences, the two sides are closer to producing a bill than they have been all year. But the upcoming political season, which includes an important midterm election, could play a big role.

“The first rule of politics is timing,” Coppess said. “Right now the farm bill is sitting in conference. They’re making real progress for the first time in a couple of years on getting a compromise with the hope that in early January it goes on to the president.

“The longer this drags on for 2014 the more difficult this becomes. Policy disagreements have been hurdles all along in the farm bill. The (House and Senate) don’t agree on a whole lot right now.”