Congressional Republicans this week step up efforts to finalize a sweeping package of tax cuts,  while the Senate Agriculture Committee’s GOP majority attempts to advance another of President Trump’s nominees for the Agriculture Department. 

“The tax reform train is moving forward,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said on his Twitter feed Friday. “We are heading toward historic, pro-growth tax reform by New Year’s Day 2018.”

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts is trying to push through the nomination of Stephen Vaden to be USDA’s general counsel over strong opposition of many Democrats. The committee will meet Monday to vote on Vaden’s nomination.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in an Open Mic interview with Agri-Pulse that the vacancies in top positions at USDA is slowing his effort to reorganize the department and improve customer service. The vacancies also will make it more difficult for the department to advise the House and Senate Agriculture committees as they write a new farm bill. 

The Senate has confirmed just three USDA nominees so far: Deputy Secretary Steve Censky; Ted McKinney, the undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural services; and Greg Ibach, the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs. Trump still needs to nominate undersecretaries for food safety; natural resources; food, nutrition and consumer services; and research, economics and education.

Trump’s nominee to become undersecretary for farm and conservation programs, Bill Northey, has been blocked by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as leverage to get concessions from the administration on biofuel policy, and Sam Clovis withdrew his nomination to be undersecretary for research, economics and education. 

"With the farm bill coming along it’s ... important to have this leadership on board so they can testify to Congress and give our missions and motives and where we want to be," Perdue said. 

Republicans have just two weeks left before Christmas to reconcile differences between the House and Senate tax bills and reach agreement with Democrats on another extension of government spending authority. Congress last week passed a two-week stopgap funding bill until Dec. 22. 

Lawmakers aren’t expected to finish agreement on an omnibus funding bill for the rest of fiscal 2018 until January. Congressional leaders have been trying to reach agreement on a deal to increase the spending caps for defense and non-defense spending set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. 

House and Senate Republicans face major challenges to find agreement on key details of a final tax bill, including reconciling sharp differences between the House and Senate on the tax rates and rules for farms and other small businesses that are organized as partnerships, sole proprietorships and S corporations. 

Farmers "are watching the tax bill debate more closely than any other Washington discussion that I can remember," said Craig Lang, a former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau. "It is because a change in a federal tax bill effects every farmer and rancher regardless of size or product grown."

Republicans in California and the Northeast also are pushing to preserve a deduction for state and local income taxes that would be eliminated by both the House- and  Senate-passed bills. 

The House-Senate conference committee charged with writing a final bill will hold its first formal meeting on Wednesday, but the real negotiating will be done behind closed doors. 

“The House and the Senate are working together now on a unified, pro-growth tax reform bill that will deliver more jobs, fairer taxes, and bigger paychecks,”said House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas. “Our open meeting will be an opportunity for the conferees to discuss our best, most pro-growth tax reform ideas that will help improve the lives of all Americans.”

Polls indicate strong public distrust of GOP reform plans, but Roberts, a Kansas Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview for C-Span’s Newsmakers that support should improve once voters better understand the details, “and we do a better job of selling it.” 

Roberts expressed confidence Republicans would get a bill to the president. “I’m optimistic this is going to happen because it has to happen,” he said.

The difficulty in filling vacancies at USDA continues to frustrate Roberts.

At Vaden's Nov. 9 confirmation hearing, the committee’s ranking member, Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, and other Democrats raised concerns about his qualifications and what he's written in the past about voting rights. Sen. Sherrod Brown, R-Ohio, questioned whether Vaden had the background to oversee USDA’s 200 lawyers.

Vaden told the committee he has been essentially doing the job at USDA as “principal deputy general counsel” for the past 11 months.

As for the Northey nomination, Cruz has given no indication of when he will release his hold. "We have to keep working with him (Cruz) the best we can," Roberts said in a separate interview.

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

Monday, Dec. 11

10 a.m. - Center for Strategic and International Studies forum, “Beyond Trade: The Costs and Consequences of Exiting NAFTA,” 1616 Rhode Island Ave NW. 1777 F St. NW.

3 p.m. - World Food Program USA forum with Steve Hadley, former National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, on the link between food insecurity and global instability, 

5:45 p.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee meeting to vote on the nomination of Stephen Vaden to be USDA’s general counsel, S-219 Capitol.

Tuesday, Dec. 12

10 a.m. - Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting to vote on the nominations of Timothy Petty to be an assistant Interior secretary for water and science and  Linda Capuano to be administrator of the Energy Information Administration, 366 Dirksen.

10 a.m. - Washington International Trade Association forum on “Agriculture, Trade and American leadership,” with former U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus and Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Noon - Heritage Foundation forum, “NAFTA Renegotiations: What’s at Stake for Agriculture?” 214 Massachusetts Ave NE.

Noon - USDA releases monthly Crop Production report and World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates.

12:30 p.m. - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks at the National Press Club. 

2 p.m. - House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, “The Future of the North American Free Trade Agreement,” 2172 Rayburn.

Wednesday, Dec. 13

9:30 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, “Safeguarding American Agriculture in a Globalized World,” 328A Russell.

2 p.m. - House-Senate conference committee meeting to reconcile the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” HC-5 Capitol.

Thursday, Dec. 14

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

Friday, Dec. 15


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