Washington Week Ahead: Growers' clout at stake in Iowa, senators target ethanol

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2016 - Critics of ethanol are rehashing proposals to curb biofuel policy, and Republicans may force another vote on the “waters of the United States” rule as the Senate debates a comprehensive bipartisan energy bill this week.

The bill's managers are working to prevent any such “poison pill” amendments, however, to smooth the way for passage of the legislation.

But the biggest challenge for corn growers and the ethanol industry may well be in the first-in the-nation Iowa caucuses on Monday, not in the Senate debate. Many in the state's ethanol industry and corn growers have been working into the final days to stop Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, an opponent of the Renewable Fuel Standard, from winning the Republican caucuses

Cruz's support has been slipping in recent weeks, and the final Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll, released Saturday night, showed Donald Trump leading him, 28 percent to 23 percent. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was third at 15 percent. On the Democratic side, the poll showed Hillary Clinton up by just three points, 45 to 42 percent, over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Bob Hemesath, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, had a clear message for voters on the final weekend of the state's campaign: Vote for anybody but Cruz.

“There are 12 candidates that support the RFS to choose from,” Hemesath said, referring to all of the other candidates in both parties except for Cruz and Rand Paul. “Agriculture and ethanol do not matter for only Iowa in this presidential election. Please go out and caucus for a candidate that supports the RFS.”

The Senate resumes consideration Tuesday of the energy bill, which includes popular provisions to update the electricity grid, accelerate the export of liquefied natural gas and promote energy efficiency in homes and businesses.

Lets Talk Food

Congress hasn't passed a major energy bill since 2007, but the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved this measure by a wide margin, 18-4.

“This clearly doesn't go as far as I would like it to go, and it doesn't go as far as the other side would like it to go in certain areas,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “It's taking steps in the right direction.”

When the Senate broke for the weekend on Thursday, 11 amendments had been approved for debate out of 190 that had been filed.

Barrasso is considering forcing another vote on the WOTUS rule through an amendment that incorporates a bill that Democrats blocked from advancing last fall. The bill would have required the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to write a new rule under tight restrictions on how expansive it could be. The bill, however, failed to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Democratic filibuster when only four Democrats broke ranks to support it.

The amendment also would require 60 votes and there is no evidence that other Democrats are reconsidering their position. “We're still working on” persuading other Democrats, Barrasso told Agri-Pulse.

Sponsors of the anti-ethanol amendments conceded that they might not get the needed votes and that the measures would be difficult to pass in any case.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., has proposed to repeal the RFS, but he acknowledged that getting the 60 votes needed to approve the amendment would be a “tough row.” He alleged that RFS drives up gasoline and food costs without benefit to the environment. “With the abundance of our domestic oil, with our increased vehicular efficiency standards, there is no need for the RFS,” he said.

Another amendment by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., would block the Agriculture Department from continuing to fund ethanol blender pumps. “The ethanol blender pump program encourages wasteful subsidies for the corn industries, harms the environment, and damages vehicle engines that use ethanol,” Flake said.

 Last fall, USDA announced a $210 million effort, using some state and private money, in 21 states to nearly double the number of gas station pumps nationwide that supply renewable fuels to American motorists.

Despite the possibility of such poison pill amendments, there is optimism that the most contentious measures will be shelved in favor of passing a bipartisan bill next week.

One hopeful sign for the bill was the Senate's 62-29 vote last week for an amendment by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey that would require annual reports for three years on the effects of ending the ban on U.S. crude oil exports.

Led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 29 Republican senators voted against the amendment. But in a significant bipartisan gesture, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and 19 other Republicans voted for Markey's measure.

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The House Agriculture Committee is holding a pair of hearings this week, including one Tuesday that will focus on the challenges of small-scale farmers who are selling directly to restaurants or consumers, through farmers and Community Supported Agriculture groups (CSAs). The hearing reflects an effort by the committee, chaired by Mike Conaway, R-Texas, to broaden political support for farm bills.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which sometimes clashes with the interests of more conventional farm groups, recommended witnesses for the hearing.

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

Monday, Feb. 1

Iowa presidential caucuses.

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture annual meeting, Grand Hyatt, Washington.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is in Beijing for bilateral meetings through Tuesday. Assistant USTR for Africa Florie Liser and Assistant USTR for Agricultural Affairs Sharon Bomer Lauritsen are in South Africa all week for bilateral meetings.

USTR's chief agricultural negotiator, Darcy Vetter, speaks to the National Barley Growers Association.

1 p.m. - House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady speaks on “U.S. Economic Freedom” at the Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave NE.

1 p.m. - Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute holds press briefing on its economic modeling study of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, “Trading Down: Unemployment, Inequality, and Other Risks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement,” National Press Club.

 

Tuesday, Feb. 2

9:30 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee considers its budget views and estimates letter for agencies under its jurisdiction, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on opportunities and challenges of direct marketing for farmers, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Science, Space and Technology hearing, “Paris Climate Promise: A Bad Deal for America,” 2318 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - House Ways and Means Committee hearing on “Reaching America's Potential: Delivering Growth and Opportunity for All Americans,” 1100 Longworth.

10:30 a.m. - House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee roundtable to discuss priorities for the next Water Resources Development Act, 2167 Rayburn.

Wednesday, Feb. 3

Froman goes to New Zealand for the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and for bilateral meetings, through Saturday.

8 a.m. - Rep. Collin Peterson, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speak at NASDA.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on incentives to increase low-income families' purchasing of fruits and vegetables, 1300 Longworth.

 

Thursday, Feb. 4

USTR's Vetter travels to Belgium for negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

All day - National Academy of Sciences meeting on domestic transportation of petroleum, natural gas and ethanol, 500 5th Street, NW.

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

Friday,  Feb. 5

(Jonathan Harsch contributed to this report.)

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