Washington Week Ahead: Obama trade agenda hangs in balance

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 14, 2015 -This week promises more drama on trade as the fast-track trade bill sits in limbo in the House following President Obama's failure to persuade Democrats to support him on a critical vote.

The House on Friday voted down the Trade Adjustment Assistance section of the bill, 126-302, while approving the rest of the measure (HR 1314), which provides the president with Trade Promotion Authority. Without the TAA section, however, the bill can't go to the White House for Obama's signature.

“I'm optimistic this can be salvaged,” House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said on Fox News Sunday.

But that will be anything but easy, given that Obama and GOP leaders need to switch about 90 or more votes to approve TAA.

Also this week, a House committee will take the first step toward moving a bill to bar state GMO labeling laws. A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee holds a hearing Thursday on the bill, clearing the way for subcommittee and full committee markups that Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., intends to hold before the August recess.

Revisions that have been proposed to the bill (HR 1599) to broaden its support and would tighten the role of the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration in regulating new genetically engineered crops.

Lets Talk Food

Also on Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who earlier offered to assist in developing the legislation, will speak to the American Seed Trade Association's annual meeting.

There will also be action this week on both sides of Capitol Hill on key appropriations bills. The House Appropriations Committee will debate its fiscal 2016 Interior-Environment spending bill Tuesday morning, and a Senate Appropriations subcommittee will mark up its version of the legislation on Tuesday afternoon.

The House measure includes provisions that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing its new Clean Water Act rule as well as its proposed plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electric utilities.

Then, on Thursday, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up its fiscal 2016 spending bill for the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration.

Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., tells Agri-Pulse that the bill will be relatively free of policy riders, including the waiver of school nutrition standards that he has included in past bills. Aderholt, who said he's trying to keep controversial issues off the bill for now, is setting aside the nutrition issue while Congress considers reauthorizing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which expires Sept. 30.

The House Education and Workforce Committee, which is responsible for child nutrition programs, holds a hearing on the issue Tuesday with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack scheduled to testify.

Aderholt has slightly less money to spend for 2016 than he did for fiscal 2015, so to fund priority programs the bill will include some new cuts to mandatory spending programs, including conservation, he said.

The questions over trade policy will hang over everything this week until GOP leaders and the White House figure out how to resurrect TAA.

Republican leaders said they could call for another vote on TAA by Tuesday, but they didn't suggest what they will do to reverse the Friday's outcome, which came just hours after the president went to Capitol Hill to make a personal appeal to Democrats.

TAA, which assists workers and farmers who have been harmed by imports, is normally a priority for Democrats, and generally disliked by Republicans. But Democrats saw killing that section as a way of bringing down the entire legislation, which would clear the way for Obama to wrap up the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and submit it to Congress.

Obama appealed to Democrats to “play it straight” and vote for TAA, even if they didn't like the rest of the legislation. But even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., rejected his plea, and after the vote she released a letter to colleagues that appeared to condition Democratic support for TAA on passage of a new surface transportation funding bill.

“The prospects for passage of (the trade) bill will greatly increase with the passage of a robust highway bill,” she said.

Ryan put the onus on Obama: “He has work to do with his party and I'm hopeful he can get that work done and we can fix this.” But Republicans will need to come up with additional votes as well, and he didn't say what GOP leaders would do to get them. During one point in the voting Friday, as many as 93 Republicans had registered “yes” on TAA, but some switched as the outcome became clear, leaving 86 GOP “ayes” at the end to go with the 40 Democrats.

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Obama on Saturday urged the House to reconsider the TAA vote for the sake of workers who benefit from TAA, which is set to expire Sept. 30.White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Friday downplayed the president's loss, calling it a “procedural snafu,” the same term Earnest used in describing a brief Democratic filibuster of the bill in the Senate last month.

“The president is determined … to build a bipartisan majority to make sure that we're living up to our commitment as Democrats to fight for middle-class families,” Earnest said.  

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

Monday, June 15

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


Tuesday, June 16

10 a.m. - House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on child nutrition programs with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 2175 Rayburn.

10:15 a.m. - House Appropriations Committee marks up the fiscal 2016 Interior-Environment bill, 2359 Rayburn.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee marks up its fiscal 2016 bill, 124 Dirksen.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on strategic implications of trade promotion and capacity building in the Pacific Rim and Asia, 419 Dirksen.

Wednesday, June 17

American Seed Trade Association annual meeting, Marriott Marquis.

10 a.m. - House Ways and Means Committee hearing on funding surface transportation, 1100 Longworth.

2 p.m. - House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on the president's executive actions on immigration, 2154 Rayburn.

Thursday, June 18

Vilsack speaks to ASTA.

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

9:30 a.m. - Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing on EPA's management of the Renewable Fuel Standard, 342 Dirksen.

10 a.m. - House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on labeling of biotech food, 2123 Rayburn.   

10:30 a.m. - House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee marks up fiscal 2016 bill for USDA and FDA, 2362-A Rayburn. 
Friday, June 19

ASTA annual meeting.

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