Washington Week Ahead: Francis, Xi to dominate D.C. as budget deadline looms

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 2015 - Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping will capture Washington's attention this week even as Republican congressional leaders struggle to ensure there won't be a government shutdown on Oct. 1.

The heavily anticipated papal visit, which includes an address to a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, has conservatives nervous because of the emphasis he is expected to put on poverty, immigration and climate change, issues where Democrats are counting to get a political lift.

Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and a leading voice on domestic and international food aid programs, said he hopes the pope will “change the tone” on poverty issues. Francis also “is going to tell us we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the planet,” McGovern said.

President Xi arrives in Washington Thursday for meetings with President Obama and congressional leaders. Agriculture will be an issue, at least on the sidelines of the visit.

On Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman will speak to the inaugural meeting of a U.S.-China initiative created to discuss agriculture issues, the Strategic Agriculture Innovation Dialogue. China's agriculture minister, Han Changfu, and the deputy trade negotiator in the commerce ministry, Zhang Xiangchen, also will be there along with a range of industry and academic experts.

The Dialogue, "if managed properly, can be a venue for the United States and China to advance common agricultural objectives and ensure an ongoing commitment to transparency, open communication, and science-based regulatory decision-making for biotech crops and grains,” a group of House members said in a letter to the White House.

Lets Talk Food

Those lawmakers, as well as farm groups and biotech companies, also want President Obama to push Xi himself to accelerate import approvals for new genetically engineered crops.

On Capitol Hill, Republican congressional leaders are focused on ensuring the government doesn't shut down Oct. 1 when fiscal 2016 begins. House conservatives, with encouragement from Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, are demanding that a stopgap spending bill to keep the government operating make at least a symbolic attempt to defund Planned Parenthood.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was emphatic last week that the government wouldn't shut down. He is looking to pass a continuing resolution that would run into the late fall to give Republicans time to negotiate with the White House on higher spending levels.

"We're going to fund the government, we're not going to shut the government down,” McConnell said.

The Senate, meanwhile, could pass a compromise bill (HR 2051) this week reauthorizing grain inspection standards and livestock price reporting. The bill is slated to pass by unanimous consent if no senators object, clearing it for final passage by the House next week, just ahead of the scheduled expiration of the laws authorizing federal grain inspections services and the price reporting system.

The bill (HR 2051), which the Senate Agriculture Committee approved last week on a voice vote, includes a key compromise sought by grain traders that could allow private inspections of grain when government inspectors are unavailable because of a labor disruption. Both the buyer and seller would have to agree that the private inspections would be sufficient.

As for Pope Francis, the White House has made clear that it is counting on him to give a boost to its efforts to address climate change and to highlight the issue of income inequality.

On many “big-ticket issues such as “climate change, like fighting inequality, like fighting poverty, like reaching out to people in distress and people in need, his essential messages will resonate very much with the president's agenda,” said Charlie Kupchan, senior director for European Affairs on the National Security Council.

“We are hoping that his moral authority helps us advance many of the items that we take to be very high on our policy agenda.”

The pope meets one-on-one with Obama on Wednesday morning. Francis is scheduled to address Congress at 10 a.m. on Thursday, but his remarks will be somewhat limited because he also plans to appear at the west front of the U.S. Capitol, where he will greet the throng expected to gather on the West Lawn and National Mall, before leaving the building at 11 a.m.

Many Republicans will be unhappy if the pope avoids moral issues such as abortion and focuses only on the environment and poverty. At least one Republican plans to boycott the address, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the pope's remarks on the environment and poverty are unlikely to have much impact on Congress because they're “too amorphous.”

“I'd be deeply disappointed if he doesn't use this venue to talk about life issues… He could move the needle on life issues, maybe immigration,” said Conaway.

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

Monday, Sept. 21

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman attends the U.S.-India CEO Luncheon and Forum.

Noon - Heritage Foundation hosts panel discussion, “How Climate Policy Hurts the Poor,” 214 Massachusetts Ave NE.

3 p.m. - Center for American Progress hosts panel discussion, “Pope Francis in the United States: Challenges and Opportunities for Progressives,” 1333 H St. NW.

4 p.m. - USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.

Tuesday, Sept. 22

Yom Kippur begins

Froman addreses the Asian Architecture Conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; meets with the EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom to discuss the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations; and meets with Nirmala Sitharaman, India's state minister for commerce and industry.

10:30 a.m. - Commodity Futures Trading Commission's agricultural advisory committee meets.

4 p.m. - Pope Francis arrives from Cuba at Joint Base Andrews.

Wednesday, Sept. 23

Yom Kippur ends

9:15 a.m. - White House welcome ceremony for Pope Francis and meeting with President Obama.

Thursday, Sept. 24

Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speak to the U.S.-China Strategic Agriculture Innovation Dialogue.

Froman meets with WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo.

President Xi Jinping of China arrives in Washington for state visit.

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales.

10 a.m. - Pope Francis addresses joint meeting of Congress and appears at West Front of the Capitol.

3 p.m. - Heritage Foundation hosts panel discussion: A State Visit in Interesting Times: Looking at the Obama-Xi Summit, 214 Massachusetts Ave NE.

Friday, Sept. 25

Xi and President Obama hold joint press conference, and Xi meets with congressional leaders.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden will participate in food waste-related events at the United Nations.

9 a.m. - USDA releases monthly Food Price Outlook.

3 p.m. - USDA releases quarterly Hogs and Pigs report.

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