Senators will open the new year welcoming two new Democratic colleagues and facing some major unfinished business, including a House-passed disaster bill that would authorize new assistance for cotton and dairy producers. 

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is scheduled to begin negotiations with South Korea this week on potential modifications to the U.S.-Korea trade agreement. 

Michael Beeman, the assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan, Korea and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, will meet in Washington Friday with a Korean delegation led by Myung-hee Yoo, director general from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

One of the two new senators, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, will be sworn in Wednesday to replace Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who is resigning on Tuesday in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. Doug Jones of Alabama also will take office Wednesday, replacing appointed-Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala. Strange was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Smith, who was appointed to her new seat by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, is expected to run in a November special election to serve the remainder of Franken’s term, which runs through 2020. 

Jones, a lawyer, has a limited public record, having only four years as a U.S. attorney. Smith has been lieutenant governor for three years and has taken an interest in agricultural policy, according to Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap, who traveled with her to Cuba in June and later hosted her on his farm. 

Smith has been a key point of contact for farmers in the Dayton administration, Paap said. “We’ve worked more with her than the governor,” Paap said.  Smith previously served as chief of staff to Dayton and brings to the job an interest in bringing stakeholders together to solve problems, Paap said. 

Strange’s exit from the Senate will leave Republicans with an even slimmer majority, 51-49, while creating an opening on the Republican side of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has told Agri-Pulse he is interested in returning to the committee. 

The House, which will continue in recess this week, passed a supplemental appropriations bill Dec. 21 that contains $81 billion in disaster assistance and would make cotton eligible for the Price Loss Coverage and lift a cap on the Livestock Gross Margin (LGM) insurance program to help dairy producers. 

House GOP leaders originally wanted to attach the supplemental to a continuing resolution that was needed to keep the government operating after Dec. 22, but divisions within the Republican caucus and resistance on the Senate side forced the leadership to pass the CR on its own. The new CR, which was also approved by the Senate Dec. 21, runs through Jan. 19. 

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow, raised objections to the farm bill provisions in the House’s supplemental package. She and Senate colleagues have been working on an alternative proposal similar to provisions included in the Senate’s fiscal 2018 agricultural appropriations bill. 

Stabenow said that expanding LGM wouldn't do enough for dairy producers, and she objected to offsetting the cost of that provision by expanding a program for preventing duplicative benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which would save an estimated $579 million.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., complained that the House’s disaster assistance for Puerto Rico was inadequate. “I think we can work it out in a bipartisan way … but just jamming it through without consulting us and not being fair as many other parts of the country doesn’t make sense,” he said. 

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

Monday, Jan. 1

Federal holiday.

Tuesday, Jan. 2

Wednesday, Jan. 3

Doug Jones of Alabama and Tina Smith of Minnesota sworn in as new senators. 

Thursday, Jan. 4

U.S-Korea trade negotiations begin.

Friday, Jan. 5


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