Congressional negotiators are struggling to close a deal that could increase border security funding while funding USDA, FDA and other agencies important to agriculture for the rest of fiscal 2019 and provide disaster aid for farmers hit by the 2018 hurricanes. 

Biodiesel producers also have been lobbying hard to include in the deal an extension of the industry’s expired $1-a-gallon tax credit. 

The government could partially shut down again if lawmakers can’t reach agreement by the time a stopgap spending bill expires on Friday. Going into the weekend, some lawmakers were expressing confidence that won’t happen, but the talks appeared to be stalled as of Sunday.

“I’m very optimistic,” the chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said on Friday. “I don’t think anyone sees the debacle we experienced for 35 days,” he said, referring to the five-week shutdown that started Dec. 22. 

However, the talks stalled over the weekend over Democrats' insistence on limiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds. A Democratic aide said the cap would "force the Trump administration to prioritize arresting and deporting serious criminals, not law-abiding immigrants."

Bishop has been pushing to include in the deal authorization for up to $3 billion in agricultural disaster aid. A source familiar with the negotiations said this week the authorization level was likely to be less than that, because USDA’s damage estimates have come in lower than the affected states’ earlier numbers. However, the source added the legislation would likely include higher coverage levels for growers who lost crops to the hurricanes. 

"The longer we delay it (the disaster aid) the more difficult it will be for farmers to being the next planting season,” Bishop said. 

But speaking on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said the negotiations are currently stalled and the next 24 hours would be crucial for finalizing a deal.

"I'm not confident we are going to get a deal. I'm hopeful we're going to get a deal," Shelby added.

Also this week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will be in China to continue negotiations to resolve the ongoing trade dispute that has resulted in 25 percent in retaliatory tariffs being imposed on soybeans, cotton and other U.S. commodities. 

Trump has threatened to increase tariffs on China exports if there is no deal by March 1, but that deadline is widely expected to be extended to allow more time for the negotiations. 

The Senate this week is moving toward a final vote on a sweeping public lands bill that would permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses oil and gas royalties to acquire lands for conservation and recreation. 

The bill, which combines about 100 individual lands bills, reflects a bipartisan compromise worked out at the end of the last Congress. But while the legislation has broad support from conservation groups, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Sheep Industry Association both oppose the section that would permanently reauthorize the conservation fund. The fund’s authorization expired in September. 

In a joint letter to Senate leaders, the two groups said it would be “irresponsible for Congress to relinquish its oversight authority and give a blank check to the federal agencies for the purposes of land acquisition.” 

The groups fear, they say, that the program will be “weaponized by radicals” to promote more government land acquisitions. 

The bill would require 40 percent of LWCF funds be allocated to state programs and allocate 3 percent of the funding, or at least $15 million a year, for recreational improvements on federal lands.

Barring last-minute hitches, cattle and sheep producers will have a hard time stopping the bill. 

House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the measure could be considered in the House under the accelerated, suspension process that is reserved for bills with broad bipartisan support. Bills considered suspension of the rules cannot be amended but must have a two-thirds majority to pass. 

Also this week, Senate Republicans are moving quickly to confirm William Barr as attorney general. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quickly filed cloture on Barr’s nomination soon after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-10 along party lines Thursday to approve him. 

Senate Republicans are separately taking steps to accelerate the nominations of district judges and sub-Cabinet executive branch nominations. 

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a resolution sponsored by Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., that would reduce from 30 hours to two hours the amount of post-cloture time needed to get to a final vote on those nominees. The 30-hour requirement would remain for higher-level nominations. 

Republicans are frustrated that Democrats have been using the existing rules and the 30-hour post-cloture requirement to string out votes on nominees. During Trump’s first two years in office, cloture was filed on 148 of his nominees, and the Senate held cloture votes on 127 of them, setting up the 30-hour requirement, according to the committee.

The rules change could affect three pending nominations to high-level positions at USDA who didn’t get votes at the end of the last Congress and had to be resubmitted by the White House. 

The nominees — Mindy Brashears as undersecretary for food safety, Scott Hutchins as undersecretary for research, education and economics, and Naomi Earp as assistant secretary for civil rights - were recently appointed to acting deputy positions while they wait Senate consideration. 

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

Monday, Feb. 11

National Ethanol Conference, through Wednesday, Orlando, Fla.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will be in North Carolina to meet with hog producers, tour a Butterball turkey processing plant, and hold a town hall at University of Mount Olive in Mount Olive, N.C., to highlight the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. 

Tuesday, Feb. 12

10 a.m. — House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, 2358-A Rayburn. 

Wednesday, Feb. 13

Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau annual meeting, through Friday, San Diego.

National Council of Farmer Cooperatives annual meeting, through Friday, Scottsdale, Ariz.

10 a.m. — House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the planned T-Mobile-Sprint merger, 2123 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, "Climate Change and Public Lands: Examining Impacts and Considering Adaptation Opportunities," 1324 Longworth.

10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, “The Invasive Species Threat: Protecting Wildlife, Public Health, and Infrastructure,” 406 Dirksen.

10:30 a.m. — Senate Rules and Administration Committee meeting to consider resolution to accelerate consideration of nominations, 301 Russell.

Thursday, Feb. 14

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

10 a.m. — House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, 2141 Rayburn.

3 p.m. — USDA releases annual Agricultural Baseline Report

Friday, Feb. 15

Continuing resolution that is funding USDA, Interior, FDA, EPA and other departments and agencies expires. 

Ben Nuelle contributed to this report. 

For more news, go to: