The Senate plans to name its farm bill negotiators this week, clearing the way for the talks to begin as House members scatter for the August recess.
The House named its 47 conferees last week. The Senate is expected to have just seven - four Republicans and three Democrats. The GOP conferees will include Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has taken a personal interest in getting a new farm bill enacted.
The full conference is not expected to meet this week before the House goes on recess, but Roberts and House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said they hoped to meet together with the ranking Democrats on their committees this week to begin discussing the major issues they face, including the House demands for food stamp reform.
“We’ve got to get this done,” said Conaway.
The Senate is expected to remain in session for at least a portion of, if not most of, August. Conaway said he would remain in close contact with his colleagues and staff even though he won't be in Washington.
He and Roberts have said they are committed to finishing the negotiations by Sept. 30, when many programs in the 2014 farm bill expire, but the talks could drag on longer. (Crop insurance is not affected, since it is permanently authorized, and commodity programs will remain in effect for the 2018 marketing year.)
Negotiations on the 2014 farm bill ran from October 2013 through January 2014.
Another House conferee, Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said he is “cautiously optimistic” the negotiators can agree on a bill “even in this heated political environment we live in.”
The turmoil created by President Donald Trump’s trade policy has given some political momentum to the legislation. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who is No. 3 in the Senate GOP leadership, said it is critical for Republicans to get the bill enacted before the November elections, if not earlier.
“We have to demonstrate to the people in farm country that we get it, and we understand how important it is that we have the new farm bill in place as they approach the harvest season and are starting to make decisions about planting for next year,” he said.
Conaway said House Republicans will insist on some provisions to tighten work requirements for people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. He indicated that he held back some ideas from the bill his committee produced this spring, but he didn’t say what they were.
The ranking Democrat on the House committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, expressed doubt that a compromise was possible on SNAP that would attract sufficient Democratic support in the Senate. He said that Republicans “poisoned the well” by putting reforms in the House bill that Democrats wouldn’t support.
The House-Senate conference report will need 60 votes to pass the Senate. Republicans control just 51 seats, and one GOP senator, John McCain, is back home in Arizona battling cancer and has not voted since December.
House Republicans are betting that it will be tough for Senate Democrats who are running for re-election to vote against a final bill that includes tighter SNAP work rules. The question is whether there are enough of those Democrats, beyond several running for re-election in states that Trump carried.
“It’s true that there are a lot of Democrats who are going to need to vote for a farm bill, especially those going into an election from farm states,” said Thune. “But you would have to get 10 Democratic votes on the conference report when it comes back, so you have to dig pretty deep into their ranks.”
An ag labor bill that House Republican leaders promised to put on the floor by the end of this month remained in limbo heading into the weekend. The bill is not on the House schedule for this week, but one farm group lobbyist said a final decision by GOP leaders on the measure wasn’t expected until Monday.
The chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told Agri-Pulse last week that he doesn’t think the bill will have the votes to pass unless it’s tied to provisions for reunifying families separated at the border.
The Ag and Legal Workforce Act, released last week, would create a new H-2C program that could provide 450,000 H-2C visas annually for foreign farm workers, including those who are now in the country illegally. The bill also would require all employers to start using the E-Verify to ensure the legal status of their hires. The bill's cosponsors include Meadows as well as Conaway, Peterson and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
Farm groups are divided on the legislation. The American Farm Bureau Federation supports it, but the Western Growers Association does not.
Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, July 23
4 p.m. - USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.
Tuesday, July 24
8 a.m. - Heritage Foundation forum, “Trade Wars Are Bad and America Is Losing: Time to Ditch Section 232 Tariffs,” 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE.
10 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the nominations of Dan Michael Berkovitz to be a member of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and James Hubbard to be undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment.
10 a.m. - Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the factors that affect global oil prices, 366 Dirksen.
2:30 p.m. - Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on “The China Challenge, Part 1: Economic Coercion as Statecraft,” 419 Dirksen.
Wednesday, July 25
Ag Transportation Summit, through Thursday, The Westin Crystal City.
9 a.m. - USDA releases monthly Food Price Outlook.
10 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee hearing on the upcoming agenda for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, 1300 Longworth.
10 a.m. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on 5G technology, 253 Russell.
Thursday, July 26
All day - FDA holds public meeting on its comprehensive, multi-year nutrition innovation strategy, Hilton Washington DC/Rockville Hotel (webcast available).
9:15 a.m. - House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Renewable Identification Numbers, 2322 Rayburn.
9:45 a.m. - Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer,
Friday, July 27
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