Lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving break with a long to-do list important to agriculture that includes keeping the government funded and potentially debating the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, all of which is competing for attention with the House impeachment battle.
Also, the biodiesel industry is lobbying lawmakers to pass a tax extenders bill in December to revive the $1-a-gallon tax credit that expired at the end of 2017.
And the House may debate the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would expand the H-2A visa program to year-round farmworkers and provide existing agricultural workers who are undocumented a path to legal status.
The biggest question mark is how much can get done on Capitol Hill with impeachment dominating the attention of lawmakers and the nation. The House Judiciary Committee officially begins its impeachment hearings on Tuesday.
Still, negotiations between House Democrats and the White House had made so much progress last week that USMCA could be on the floor as early as this week, Fox News reported.
Jesus Seade, Mexico’s chief negotiator for the trade deal, met with Lighthizer for several hours on Wednesday. He praised the changes that Democrats had been seeking and said there had been “progress across the board” in the negotiations.
“Every single issue that has made me lose my sleep is off the table. These are normal things to have in a trade agreement, an ambitious trade agreement,” Seade told reporters.
The final deal “certainly will be a huge improvement over the originally signed agreement, thanks to the Democrats,” he said. He didn’t go into detail about what agreements had been reached about enforcement of labor and environmental standards, two of the key issues for House Democrats.
Meanwhile, negotiations over fiscal 2020 spending have shown progress although there has been no sign of agreement between congressional Democrats and the White House over President Donald Trump’s demand for additional border wall funding.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, congressional leaders reached agreement on spending limits for each of the 12 spending bills that fund the government, including the Agriculture measure, which funds the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration. The individual spending limits, known as 302(b) allocations, aren’t released until the final legislation is ready.
When that will happen is far from clear: A continuing resolution that is keeping the government funded at FY19 levels expires Dec. 20, and an additional CR may be needed to avert a repeat of the partial government shutdown that started before Christmas 2018 and dragged on though most of January.
The future of the biodiesel credit and the other expired tax incentives also is cloudy. House Democrats in November released a plan that would expand renewable energy tax incentives and extend the biodiesel credit for five years, but the cost of the tax breaks would have to be offset with tax increase or other additional revenue, a condition that is a non-starter for Republicans.
The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he feared the impeachment process would make it impossible to get a deal with House Democrats in time to pass an extenders bill in December. “We have a few days left, and it would be a shame to leave these” extenders undone, he said.
House Democrats, meanwhile, may move ahead with the ag labor bill that could be politically uncomfortable for some farm-district Republicans. The bill has more than 20 GOP co-sponsors, but emerged from the House Judiciary Committee on Nov. 21 on a party-line vote, largely because of its legal protections for existing undocumented workers.
The bill’s lead Democratic co-sponsor, Zoe Lofgren of California, said she expected the bill to be on the floor this month and that there was still time to work out amendments that would address concerns by agricultural groups.
But the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia, denounced the measure as a “massive amnesty” bill, and GOP support on the floor is likely to be limited as well. There has been no sign that Senate GOP leaders would take up the measure.
More than 300 national, state and local farm organizations have endorsed the bill, but the nation’s largest general farm organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, argues the bill doesn’t provide farms enough relief from H-2A wage rates. AFBF also objects to a provision that would allow workers to challenge employers in federal court.
Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, Dec. 2
4 p.m. — USDA releases the weekly Crop Progress report.
Tuesday, Dec. 3
10 a.m. — Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee meeting to consider the nomination of Stephen Hahn to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, 430 Dirksen.
10:30 a.m. — Heritage Foundation forum, “The Case for a U.S.-Swiss Free Trade Agreement,” 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE.
Wednesday, Dec. 4
10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on chronic wasting disease, 406 Dirksen.
Noon — Cato Institute book forum, “China’s Implementation of the Rulings of the World Trade Organization,” 1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
Thursday, Dec. 5
8:30 a.m. — USDA releases weekly Export Sales report.
10 a.m. — Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on next-generation broadband technologies, 216 Hart.
Friday, Dec. 6
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