Washington Week Ahead: Keystone, Cuba and GMOs

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 4, 2015 - The 114th Congress convenes at noon on Tuesday, putting both houses in Republican hands for the first time in eight years.

The new members won't get much time to savor their swearing-in ceremonies. Republicans are promising to challenge President Barack Obama on one issue after another, and they will get started this week with the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on a bill to approve the pipeline, and then the panel will vote on the measure Thursday.

A Keystone bill failed in the Senate in November as the committee's then-chairman, Mary Landrieu, D-La., was facing a runoff election that she ultimately lost. The bill failed, 59-41, one vote short of the 60 necessary to proceed to final approval.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said on CBS's “Face the Nation” Sunday that Democrats would offer a series of amendments to the Keystone bill, including requirements that the steel used to construct the pipeline be made in America and that the oil transported be used only in America. Another amendment would create new clean energy jobs within the wind and solar industries.

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But even with those changes, Schumer said he would recommend that President Obama veto the bill.

“These amendments will make it better but certainly not good enough at this point in time,” Schumer said.

Sen. John Thune, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” said the Keystone vote will provide an early test of how President Obama intends to govern in the next two years and whether he's “listening to his sort of left-wing base on this issue rather than where the American people are, who are overwhelmingly supportive of the project.”

Thune said the vote “will certainly be a way in which we can measure where he's going to come down”

Despite the flurry of activity on Capitol Hill, many in the food and agribusiness sectors will be looking away from Washington to Vermont on Wednesday when U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss holds oral arguments in the food industry's challenge to Vermont's GMO labeling law.

Lawmakers are watching the case, too. If Vermont prevails in this lawsuit, there will be a lot more pressure on Congress to pass legislation pre-empting such laws. A revised version of a pre-emption bill proposed last year by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., is expected to be introduced this year. 

On Thursday, farm groups are launching an effort to get Congress to support the Obama administration's initiative to increase trade with Cuba, another of the many issues on which somc congressional Republicans are eager to take on the president.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives are among the groups forming the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba. The coalition, which reflects a broad spectrum of commodities and regional interests, also includes Cargill Inc., the American Meat Institute, International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Obama last month called for ending the embargo on Cuba and announced a series of executive actions to increase trade with the island nation that will include loosening Treasury Department restrictions that require Cuba to pay for purchases of agricultural commodities though a third-country bank. Obama also plans to allow shipments of U.S. farm equipment.

There is strong resistance in Congress to ending the embargo, and Obama is unlikely to even get the Senate to confirm an ambassador, the outgoing chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union". Menendez, a Cuban American, has strongly criticized Obama's recent negotiations with the Cuban regime.

But John Kavulich, senior policy adviser to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, tells Agri-Pulse in an “Open Mic” interview that that there is a bipartisan support for “a change in direction toward Cuba.” Obama can probably count on help from Republicans whose states will benefit from agricultural exports to Cuba, according to Kavulich.

But Kavulich warns against expecting a major increase in exports to Cuba anytime soon. “Cuba still has an abysmal credit record, and its finances are a mess.”

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

Monday, Jan. 5

3 p.m. USDA releases U.S. Bioenergy Statistics.


Tuesday, Jan. 6

Noon. The 114th Congress convenes, new members sworn in.

3 p.m. USDA releases Dairy Products.

Wednesday, Jan. 7

9:30 a.m. Oral arguments before U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss in Grocery Manufacturers Association's lawsuit challenging Vermont's GMO labeling law. Burlington, Vt.

10 a.m. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds hearing on bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, 366 Dirksen Senate Office Building.

3 p.m. USDA releases Broiler Hatchery report and Latest U.S. Agricultural Trade Data.

Thursday, Jan. 8

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

10 a.m. Senate Energy and Natural Resources to vote on bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, 366 Dirksen Senate Office Building.

11 a.m. USDA releases Livestock and Meat International Trade Data.

2 p.m. Public launch of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, National Press Club.

3 p.m. USDA releases U.S. Agricultural Trade Data Update and Aquaculture Data.

Friday, Jan. 9

9:30 a.m. National Research Council hosts a webinar on its report, “Spurring Innovation in Food and Agriculture: A Review of the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Program.” The director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Sonny Ramaswamy, will provide reaction.

3 p.m. USDA releases Peanut Prices report.

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