Washington Week Ahead: Focus on trade and the lame duck

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2014 - Congress reconvenes in a lame-duck session this week after a month-long break to campaign for the mid-term elections. With Democrats licking their wounds and Republicans reviewing their strategy after taking over the Senate and improving their hold on the House, the big question seems to be: Will anything get done before Congress heads home for the Christmas holidays in mid-December?

According to several political pundits who spoke on the Sunday talk shows, there's little expectation that much will be accomplished, agriculturally related or otherwise, in the short session before the term of the 113th Congress expires on Jan. 3, especially with the troubling issue of immigration reform hanging over Washington. In an interview that aired Sunday on CBS' “Face the Nation” program, President Obama restated his vow to use his executive power to make changes in immigration policy by year's end, despite warnings from top Republican that this would worsen the already inimical relationship with the White House and with Congressional Democrats.

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Earlier, Republican leaders had used up most of the really good disaster metaphors to describe what would ensue. The head of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, said unilateral action by Obama would be like “throwing a barrel of kerosene on a fire.” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said it would “poison the well” on immigration, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama acting on his own would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

There will also be lots of oxygen expended on Capitol Hill over when the Senate will take up Obama's nomination of Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for Brooklyn, to succeed Eric Holder as Attorney General. Democrats want the “advise and consent” process to take place while they still control the Senate, while Republicans say the confirmation hearings should be held in the next Congress. Lynch would be the first African-American woman to head the Justice Department.

Still, there are expectations that Congress will take action on legislation that will keep the government functioning beyond Dec. 11, when the current short-term spending measure expires. And lawmakers may also reach some sort of agreement on reviving tax breaks that expired at the end of 2013, including one that allowed small businesses to immediately expense up to $500,000 when purchasing machinery or other assets, instead of expensing them over time. Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the tax extenders are “one of the few things likely to get done in the lame duck.”

Meanwhile, President Obama is out of town this week, traveling in Asia where he's attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Ministers meeting in Beijing. Trade is one of the few areas where the White House and Senate Republicans share broad areas of agreement. Unlike Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who opposed the president's push for so-called "fast track" legislation, many Republicans are eager to advance Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), setting the stage for up or down approval of new trade deals.

In fact, during his first press conference after winning re-election last week, Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is expected to be elected as the next Senate Majority Leader, said President Obama mentioned trade when they talked last week.

"I think he's interested in moving forward. I said send us trade agreements. We're anxious to take a look at them," McConnell said. 

There had been some hope that the APEC meeting could result in some movement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, involving the U.S. and 11 other nations. Those hopes were dimmed Sunday when U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said there would be “no major announcement” on the free-trade deal involving the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. Negotiations on the pact have been held up by disagreement between Washington and Tokyo's reluctance to open its markets to farm exports.

However, agricultural interests are cautiously watching the APEC talks to see if U.S. negotiators can make additional progress on TPP and perhaps make progress with the Chinese on other contentious issues, such as biotechnology approvals.

Here's a short listing of what's going on in Washington and elsewhere this week:

Monday, Nov. 10, the 239th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Tuesday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day

1 p.m. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., will hold a press availability at the Mount Rushmore visitor center (11 a.m. Mountain Time) in South Dakota following a roundtable discussion on transportation issues with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, S.D. Gov. Dennis Daugaard and other stakeholders. The roundtable discussion is closed to the press.

Wednesday, Nov. 12

2 p.m. The House and Senate will reconvene in lame duck sessions at 2 p.m. following a month-long break to campaign for the mid-term elections. Congress is taking off Thanksgiving week and will recess in mid-December for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The term of the 113th Congress expires Jan. 3.

The National Association of Farm Broadcasters opens its 71st convention in Kansas City, Missouri. Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant and Associate Editor Spencer Chase will both be covering the event.

Thursday, Nov. 13

10 a.m. The House meets for legislative business.

10:00 a.m. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs holds a hearing: Combating Ebola in West Africa: The International Response. The Honorable Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development is one of four witnesses scheduled to testify in 2167 Rayburn HOB.

Friday, Nov. 14

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will deliver remarks at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Also today, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden will address the Farmer Veteran Coalition in Des Moines, Iowa.

The House meets at 9 a.m. for legislative business.

12 p.m. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs will hold a subcommittee hearing: The Future of Energy in Africa in 2172 Rayburn.

Deputy Assistant USTR for Small Business Christina Sevilla will speak on a panel at the Atlantic Council on “The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: Big Opportunities for Small Business” in Washington DC

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