The Senate is set to debate a popular bipartisan farm bill this week that senators from both parties are eager to pass amid the uncertainty in rural America over President Donald Trump’s trade policy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., teed up action on the bill by scheduling a cloture vote Monday evening to begin debate on the legislation, which the Agriculture Committee approved 20-1 last week.
Once the cloture vote passes Monday, as expected, senators can begin filing amendments to the bill, potentially setting up debates on crop insurance, commodity program payment limits and other issues.
Allies of the crop insurance industry have been lobbying key senators to block consideration of an amendment that would be sponsored by Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to impose a means test on premium subsidies. A similar amendment was approved by the Senate in 2013 but was left out of the 2014 farm bill.
“Committee and leadership are definitely trying to limit amendments while at the same time not completely closing down the amendment process,” said an industry source.
Getting the bill out of the Senate would set the stage for negotiations with the House on a final version. The House reconsidered and passed its much more partisan bill, 213-211, on Thursday. In stark contrast to the Senate, House Democrats were united in opposition to the bill, which failed in May when some conservatives demanded that the House first act on an immigration bill developed by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
“I’m anxious for it to begin,” Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said of the Senate debate. He expressed optimism that farm-state senators can fight off any amendments that would attempt to roll back commodity supports and crop insurance. “I think we can keep a solid farm bill together.”
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he will make the case during this week’s debate that the anxiety over Trump’s trade disputes with China and other export markets increases the urgency of enacting a new farm bill.
“When you are going through a period of uncertain trade policy and basically using farmers as pawns in your effort to achieve better results on alleged trade deficits, the farmer, the rancher and … his lender, and everybody up and down Main Street, they’ve got to have that certainty,” Roberts said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he expects to get his amendment considered to tighten commodity program eligibility rules. “I’ve been promised that I can offer it on the floor,” Grassley said.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told Agri-Pulse he is considering an amendment to roll back the sugar program, a proposal that was soundly defeated in the House last month.
During debate on the House bill last month, Agriculture Chairman MIke Conaway, R-Texas, worked with the GOP leadership to block consideration of any amendments that would have tightened commodity eligibility rules or cut crop insurance and had a realistic chance of being adopted. Ultimately, the House overwhelmingly defeated a sugar amendment, 137-278, and rejected an amendment, 34-380, that called for phasing out all farm subsidies.
House Democrats, who opposed the House farm bill because of its expanded work requirements for food stamp recipients as well as some regulatory provisions, have been counting on the Senate to preserve the urban-rural coalition that has helped push previous farm bills through Congress. The Senate bill doesn’t contain any of the food stamp reforms Democrats oppose but includes other provisions many House Democrats support on local and organic agriculture and other issues.
"I was disappointed that the bipartisan coalition that is historical for the farm bill did not work out on the House side, but I’m optimistic that in conference with the Senate that maybe we can get a good product to help support our farmers and and also make sure people are not food insecure," said Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Farm groups are eager to see a House-Senate conference committee start negotiations on a final bill in July.
“Given persistent and ongoing economic challenges in the farm economy, Congress must pass a farm bill that provides strong support in the best interests of family farms, rural communities and consumers,” the National Farmers Union said last week.
A spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation said his group was eager to see the Senate pass its bill “so we can get to conference with the House and work to preserve the best provisions.”
Meanwhile this week, House Republicans may take another stab at passing an immigration bill that would provide legal status for Dreams, increase border security and prevent separation of families that are arrested at the border. The bill doesn’t include provisions to address farm labor issues.
A vote on the bill was postponed last week amid GOP divisions over the legislation, which Democrats aren’t expected to support.
Also in Congress this week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the sweeping government reorganization plan released last week by the White House that would significantly downsize USDA.
The plan would move nutrition assistance programs to the Department of Health and Human Services, shift the Food Safety and Inspection Service to a new Food Safety Agency and give USDA housing programs to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, June 25
9 a.m. - USDA releases monthly Food Price Outlook.
10 a.m. - 2018 World Food Prize Laureate Announcement Ceremony, USDA Whitten Building.
4 p.m. - USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.
Tuesday, June 26
10 a.m. - House Appropriations Committee meeting to consider its fiscal 2019 Labor-HHS spending bill.
10 a.m. - Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting to consider Energy Department nominees, 366 Dirksen.
11 a.m. - Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee meeting to consider its fiscal 2019 spending bill, 138 Dirksen.
2 p.m. - House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on the effects of Forest Service road closures, 2154 Rayburn.
Wednesday, June 27
10 a.m. - House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the White House government reorganization plan, 2154 Rayburn.
10 a.m. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee meeting to consider various bills and nominations, including the Interstate Transport Act and the nomination of Geoffrey Starks to be a member of the Federal Communications Commission, 106 Dirksen.
Thursday, June 28
Friday, June 29
Noon - USDA releases annual Acreage report.
3 p.m. - USDA releases International Food Security Assessment.
For more news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com