Washington Week Ahead: Ag awaits Trump pick as Senate rushes to OK other nominees

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2017 - Farmers and ranchers continue their wait for President-elect Donald Trump's agriculture secretary nominee, while the Senate begins confirmation hearings on his other cabinet picks and the House renews an attack on President Obama's regulatory legacy.

USDA and Veterans Affairs remain the lone departments without nominees. Speculation has centered on former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, but the transition team has been silent except to say last Wednesday that interviews were continuing.

The Senate is rushing to get as many of Trump's nominees confirmed as possible by the time he takes office Jan. 20. The Senate Judiciary Committee kicks off two days of hearings for Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions on Tuesday.

Wilbur Ross, who has been assigned to lead Trump's trade policy as secretary of commerce, will have his confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Other nominees getting hearings this week: Elaine Chao for Transportation, John Kelly for Homeland Security and retired Gen. Jim Mattis for Defense. Trump's infrastructure plan would be a likely topic for Chao's hearing, while Kelly could get asked about his approach to border security and Trump's plans to ask Congress to pay for building the border wall.

Citing warnings from the Office of Government Ethics, which is charged with preventing conflicts of interest in the executive branch, Democrats say Republicans are rushing the nominees through the confirmation process before background checks have been completed.

“Rather than ensuring that nominees are thoroughly vetted and will remove themselves from conflicts of interests, Senate Republicans are trying to ram them through as quickly as possible,” said Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on CBS' Face the Nation Sunday that he hoped to have seven nominees confirmed by the time Trump takes office, the same number confirmed when President Obama took office in 2009.

The House is spending the first weeks of the new session debating GOP bills that aim to roll back regulations and restrict the executive branch's ability to implement new ones. The bills the House will debate this week include the Commodity End-User Relief Act, a reauthorization bill for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Similar bills passed the House in 2014 and 2015 only to die in the Senate amid stiff resistance from Democrats, including the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Among other things, the bills would require the CFTC to do cost-benefit analyses of each new regulation. The legislation also seeks to restrict record-keeping requirements for grain elevators and farmers.

The latest House bill goes a step farther than the previous versions and would freeze CFTC's budget at its current level, $250 million, through fiscal 2021. President Obama has repeatedly sought increases in CFTC's budget that Republicans have repeatedly blocked. Obama requested $330 million for the agency in fiscal 2017.

Stabenow has not commented on the latest House bill but she's almost certain to oppose it, especially with the spending freeze it would impose.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the House is moving ahead regardless of the difficulty of getting the measure through the Senate. “Let the Senate do one (a bill) and then we'll go to conference. We're going to get a bill through the House that makes sense and does the things we want to do,” said Conaway.

 

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Also this week, the Senate will debate a fiscal 2017 budget resolution that includes instructions to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Senators are expected to vote on a number of non-binding amendments, much of them aimed by Democrats at putting Republicans on the spot over repealing the health law.

Republican leaders are divided over how quickly they should move legislation to replace the health law. McConnell would only say Sunday that Congress “will be replacing it rapidly.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Trump supported his plan to replace the law at the same time it is repealed. But Trump's incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said on Face the Nation that it “would be ideal if we could do it one big action” but that the “full replacement may take more time.”

Here's a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, Jan. 9

American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention, through Tuesday, Phoenix.

Tuesday, Jan. 10

9:30 a.m. - Senate Judiciary Committee holds confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, 325 Russell.

10 a.m. - Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., discusses his annual report on government waste, Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE.

10 a.m. - U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman speaks to the Washington International Trade Association, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

3 p.m. - House Rules Committee considers rule for the Commodity End Users Relief Act, H-313 Capitol.

Wednesday, Jan. 11

9:30 a.m. - Senate Judiciary continues confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions.

9:30 a.m. - Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaks on the state of American business, 1615 H St. NW.

10:15 a.m. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee holds confirmation hearing for Elaine Chao to be secretary of transportation, 253 Russell.

11 a.m. - Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz speaks at the National Press Club.

2 p.m. - Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee holds confirmation hearing for John Kelly to be secretary of homeland security, 342 Dirksen.

Thursday, Jan. 12

9 a.m. - House Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, speaks on regulatory relief for small businesses at the American Enterprise Institute, 1789 Massachusetts Ave. NW

10 a.m. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation holds confirmation hearing for Wilbur Ross to be secretary of commerce, 253 Russell.

Noon - USDA releases monthly and annual Crop Production reports and the monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates

Friday, Jan. 13

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