Washington Week Ahead: Obama releases budget; GOP to attack water rule, Cuba policy

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2015 - President Barack Obama sends Congress a fiscal 2016 budget Monday that will be dead on arrival because it sets aside the across-the-board cuts Congress set five years ago.

Key congressional committees, meanwhile, will use this week to renew an assault on the administration's Clean Water Act rule. House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Environment and Public Works will grill EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, at a joint hearing Wednesday morning.

State agriculture secretaries are in Washington this week for their winter policy meeting. They'll hear from a range of administration officials on issues ranging from trade to bee health and food safety. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman speaks to the group Monday morning.

Senate Republicans are trying to push through a House-passed bill (H.R. 240) to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the rest of fiscal 2015 but it includes provisions to block the president's immigration actions and is unlikely to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Democratic filibuster. A cloture vote is scheduled Tuesday afternoon.

As for the president's 2016 budget, it already is under fire from Republicans. Last week they blasted Obama for proposing to set aside the annual automatic cuts known as sequestration and increase spending by 7 percent for fiscal 2016, which starts Oct. 1.

“It's just the administration's latest attempt to move the goal posts on the automatic cuts the president proposed in 2011, and avoid dealing with our government's spending problem in a serious way,” House Speaker John Boehner said.

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Many Republicans would like to increase military spending but know that Democrats will insist on erasing the cuts for non-defense accounts, said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “There's a concern about controlling spending and not having it go up,” he said.

Other Republicans said Obama is moving to the left rather than trying to meet them in the middle. “The president is driving towards the middle, not on the ideological spectrum, but driving toward the middle class,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, adding that “it's fair to say that he's doubling down on that effort, and that was what was included in his State of the Union address.” 

The White House has leaked a few details of the budget, including a proposal to nearly double spending on fighting antibiotic resistance, on farms as well as in human medicine.

The proposal includes $77 million for the Agriculture Department to increase by nearly four times its spending on research and surveillance work on farm antibiotics. USDA is working on developing alternatives to antibiotics, including possible changes in animal care practices. The Food and Drug Administration would get $47 million for “antibiotic stewardship” in animal agriculture and for evaluating new antibacterial drugs in humans.

Past White House budgets have recycled a series of ideas that have gone nowhere on the Hill, including USDA office closings and imposing user fees on food companies to pay for the increased cost of implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Wednesday's joint congressional hearing will give Republicans another chance to press administration officials to back off on the proposed rule to re-define what can be regulated as a water of the United States, or WOTUS.

The chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, told Agri-Pulse that Republicans “are committed to doing something with that regulation,” but he acknowledged that they have no have no vehicle other than a policy rider on a fiscal 2016 appropriations bill to block the rule's implementation. The president would most likely veto any standalone bill addressing the issue.

“That is the No. 1 concern of farmers in America,” Inhofe said.

The president's Cuba policy also will be under scrutiny this week in hearings on both sides of the Hill. Neither promises to be friendly to the White House.

The State Department official in charge of working with Cuba, Roberta Jacobson, will be testifying Tuesday before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee chaired by one of the most anti-Castro members of Congress, Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

On Wednesday, Treasury and Commerce officials will join at a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The House hearing is likely to put more focus on the actions the administration has taken to loosen trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.

Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said he will press the officials “for the many missing details” in the administration's plan to normalize relations with Cuba. “More business that gives hard currency to the regime while workers get a few scraps of local currency is a recipe for greater repression, not Cuban liberation,” he said.

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

Monday, Feb. 2

All day - National Association of State Departments of Agriculture winter meeting, Grand Hyatt.

10:30 a.m. - U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman addresses NASDA.  Froman is also scheduled to meet later in the day with Alberta Premier Jim Prentice.

11:30 a.m. - President's fiscal 2016 budget released.

Wendy Cutler, the acting deputy U.S. trade representative, and Darci Vetter, USTR's chief agricultural negotiator, begin two days of meetings in Washington with Japanese officials on market access issues, including agriculture, in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations..

Tuesday, Feb. 3.

All day - NASDA meeting.

10 a.m. - House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on changing energy markets and transportation, 2167 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the president's budget, with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on U.S.-Cuba policy, 419 Dirksen.

10:15 a.m. - House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on inspector generals, with EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr., 2154 Rayburn.

10:30 a.m. - House Budget Committee hearing on the budget, with OMB Director Shaun Donovan, 210 Cannon.

10:30 a.m. - Senate Finance Committee hearing on the president's budget and the IRS, 215 Dirksen.

3 p.m. - USDA releases Dairy Products data.

4:30 p.m. - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hosts state agriculture commissioners, USDA.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman will meet with EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Arias Cañete, in Washington.

Wednesday, Feb. 4

8 a.m. - NASDA final committee meetings.

10 a.m. - House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on U.S.-Cuba policy, 2172 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Legal Workforce Act, which would phase in a mandatory E-Verify system, 2141 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - Joint hearing by the House Transportation and Senate Environment and Public Works committees on the proposed rule to define the waters of the United States (WOTUS), 210 House Visitors Center

2 p.m. - National Academy of Sciences committee webinar on study of genetically engineered crop adoption and acceptance.

Thursday, Feb. 5

10 a.m. - House Energy and Commerce hearing on legislation to manage cyanotoxins in drinking water, 2123 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - Senate Finance hearing on the president's budget, with Treasury's Jacob Lew, 215 Dirksen

Friday, Feb. 6

Darci Vetter, the USTR's chief agricultural negotiator, will address the National Cattlemen's Beef Association trade committee at NCBA's winter conference in San Antonio.

3 p.m. - USDA releases Peanut Prices report.

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