Washington Week Ahead: Senate actions on farm bill, ag spending on tap

Washington Week Ahead: Senate actions on farm bill, ag spending on tap
Written by: Philip Brasher 
Published by: Agri Pulse  

The Senate looks to finally name its team of farm bill negotiators this week while also finishing work on a $154 billion spending bill for a bevy of departments and agencies important to agriculture, including USDA and FDA. 

In addition, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will testify on Capitol Hill for the first time since taking over the agency’s top post in the wake of Scott Pruitt’s resignation. He is certain to be grilled about his progress on a number of issues, including a pending vapor pressure waiver that would allow year-round sales of E15. 

The House is not in action until September, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., canceled his chamber’s recess, and leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture committees say that work on a compromise farm bill will continue through August. 

The Senate still needs to formally vote to go to conference with the House on the farm bill and to release the names of its conferees. 

The vote was delayed last week when Senate leaders failed to reach agreement on handling Nebraska GOP Sen. Debbie Fischer’s push for a vote on legislation that would ease hours-of-service requirements for agricultural truckers, a Senate source said. South Dakota Republican John Thune, who is cosponsoring Fischer’s proposal, has said it faces stiff opposition from Democratic leaders. 

Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees already have been working toward a compromise farm bill even before the Senate conferees are named. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and the top Democrats on their committees, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, met for about 45 minutes on Thursday following a separate meeting that Roberts and Conaway had with McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., said he and other House conferees were told to be on call during August in case they are needed for a meeting. He expressed optimism that a new bill could be enacted this fall. 

“I’m sure there will be some contentious issues that will be discussed, but at the end of the day we’ll get it done, and the president is going to sign it, and we’ll move on,” Crawford said. 

The toughest issue the negotiators face is what to do about the House GOP’s demands to tighten work requirements for people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Roberts said he thought a deal could be fashioned around the work that USDA has done on ways to modify rules for state and local waivers of the work requirements. 

“There’s more agreement here now (on SNAP reforms) because of the urgency, the obvious necessity, to pass a bill,” said Roberts. When the issue was brought up with President Donald Trump recently, Roberts said, he apparently didn’t know that work requirements were already in place in most states.

The Senate also is expected to finish work this week on a package of four fiscal 2019 appropriations bills, including measures that would fund USDA, FDA, EPA and the Interior Department. 

The legislation, which includes increases for agricultural research, rural broadband development and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has bipartisan support because Republicans omitted controversial policy orders that House appropriators advanced, including one that would repeal the Obama-era “waters of the U.S.” rule expanding the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

One policy rider that could get added to the bill this week is an amendment by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., that would block USDA from funding the research and development of insect-based foods and ingredients. Flake said he expected the amendment to be included in a package of amendments that will be added to the bill before the Senate approves it. 

“The U.S. has more than 2.5 billion pounds of beef, pork, poultry and turkey being stockpiled. This is a record level,” Flake said. “Clearly a new source of protein is not needed and in this case likely not wanted.” 

Meanwhile, Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., are lobbying for an amendment to permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which assists states and local governments in acquiring sensitive areas. The fund’s authorization expires this fall.

When EPA’s Wheeler testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday, he can expect to be pressed on when the agency will approve a Reid Vapor Pressure waiver that would allow E15 to be marketed during the summer. President Trump said in Iowa Thursday that the RVP waiver would be coming soon, but Wheeler said earlier in the week that it would have to be packaged with other policy changes

Wheeler’s comment was a setback for biofuel groups who hope to get the RVP waiver without giving anything in return to refiners, who want exported ethanol to qualify for meeting annual biofuel usage quotas.

The committee’s GOP membership is sharply divided between defenders of the ethanol industry, including Fischer and Joni Ernst of Iowa, and allies of oil refiners, whose advocates include Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming and former Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. 

Barrasso and Inhofe were among 21 GOP senators who signed a letter last week urging Wheeler to stick with the agency’s existing policy of not retroactively reallocating gallons of ethanol that were subject to small-refinery waivers.

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