Washington Week Ahead: GOP forces debate on WOTUS rule

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2015 - Senate Republicans are forcing a debate over the Obama administration's Clean Water Act rule this week, while the House could debate raising truck weight limits, another priority for agriculture, as part of a long-term highway funding bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled a key procedural vote Tuesday afternoon for the Federal Water Quality Protection Act, which would kill the administration's rule re-defining what ditches, wetlands and streams can be regulated by the Clean Water Act as “waters of the United States” (WOTUS).

Agriculture groups pushed Senate Republicans to schedule Tuesday's cloture vote even though supporters haven't yet lined up the necessary Democratic support. The procedural step would allow the Senate to move to full debate on the bill, but it requires 60 votes.  Republicans control just 54 seats in the Senate.

“We're hopeful,” said Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has led a lobbying effort against the rule going back to when it was first proposed in early 2014. “There's a pretty narrow band of members that is going to make or break the ability to debate the issue.”

The bill (S. 1140) has 46 cosponsors, including three Democrats: Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Donnelly and Heitkamp have been lobbying colleagues to support the cloture motion, telling them that there are just two basic, non-negotiable issues in the measure - the existing rule must be eliminated, and then replaced with an alternative rule, Parrish said. The rest of the bill is open for negotiation.

The bill would require the administration to write a new rule in consultation with state and local governments and would impose tight restrictions on the new definitions the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers would write.

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The bill would bar the use of high water marks as a way to determine whether something is a tributary and would instead require the agencies to use a flow test, relying in part on the U.S. Geological Survey's hydrology maps.

If the cloture motion fails, the Senate would likely move to a disapproval resolution sponsored by Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, that would simply kill the bill. It doesn't require 60 votes to pass but would almost certainly be vetoed by President Obama.

The Center for Rural Affairs is urging senators to reject both measures. “This is clearly an effort to muddy the regulatory waters and make protecting clean water that much more difficult,” the group said.

Ag groups pushing for debate on truck weights

The House, meanwhile, is set to vote on a six-year surface transportation bill (H.R. 3763) this week, and farm groups are hoping Republicans will allow debate on a pair of amendments seeking increases in truck weight limits. The House Rules Committee will decide whether one or both amendments will be on the floor. Supporters have to overcome opposition from the railroads.

An amendment by Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., would allow states to increase the truck weight limits on their interstate highways from 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds provided the trucks have six axles. The second amendment, sponsored by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., would allow states to permit livestock to be hauled in trucks weighing up to 95,000 pounds.

“This is one of the most important issues facing livestock producers because the only efficient option to ship livestock is by truck,” said Kent Bacus, associate director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. “We have not used trains to ship cattle since the glory days of the cattle drive.”

A provision allowing states to set higher truck weights for milk trucks was added to the bill in committee.

The highway bill that the Senate bill passed this summer doesn't include any increases in truck weights. The House and Senate have until Nov. 20 to agree on a final bill or they will have to pass another temporary extension of funding authority.


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Lawmakers look to loosen menu labeling

Also this week, the House will begin moving legislation to narrow the scope of the Food and Drug Administration's menu labeling requirements. The FDA has delayed enforcement of the regulations until December 2016, but the agency still is under fire for applying them to operations such as supermarket delis and convenience stores

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday will mark up a bill (HR 2017), which, among other things, would allow pizza delivery chains and similar operations that primarily rely on phone and Internet orders to post menu counts online rather than in stores.

The chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., told Agri-Pulse that he's likely to try to address the menu labeling rule in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill on which appropriators are starting work.

The House Agriculture Committee will hold a potentially wide-ranging hearing Wednesday on agriculture's role in national security and on potential threats to the food supply, including pests and disease.

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

Monday, Nov. 2

North American Meat Institute annual meeting and outlook conference, through Thursday, Fairmont Hotel.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will host a panel discussion on agriculture issues and the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Rep. John Delaney in Boonsboro, Md.

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

Tuesday, Nov. 3

NAMI annual meeting.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman meets with members of the European Parliament on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

USTR's chief agricultural negotiator, Darci Vetter, speaks to the Retail Industry Leaders Association's International Trade and Customs Committee and to NAMI's international affairs committee.

10 a.m. - House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on the Renewable Fuel Standard, 2318 Rayburn.

1 p.m. - House Energy and Commerce subcommittee votes on disapproval resolutions of the EPA rules requiring power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 2322 Rayburn.

3 p.m. - House Energy and Commerce subcommittee markup of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act to alter menu labeling requirements, 2123 Rayburn.

Wednesday, Nov. 4

Ambassador Froman will speak at the Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue

All day - Second Annual AGree Partners Forum: Driving Positive Change in Food and Agriculture, Kellogg Conference Hotel, Gallaudet University, Washington.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee hearing on “American Agriculture and National Security,” 1300 Longworth.

Thursday, Nov. 5

NAMI annual meeting. Vetter speaks to the board of directors.

UN-FAO releases monthly food price index.

Vilsack participates in a Cabinet town hall at the White House Tribal Nations Conference

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

9:30 a.m. - Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on agency progress in retrospective review of existing regulations, 342 Dirksen.

10 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the budgetary and environmental impact of wildfire, 328-A Russell.

3 p.m. - USDA releases latest U.S. Agricultural Trade Data Update.

Friday,  Nov. 6

Comment period ends on USDA-APHIS Finding of No Significant Impact for Field Use of Vaccines Against Avian Influenza H5 Virus Strains.

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