The full Senate returns to Washington for the first time since March, setting the stage for a partisan battle over the next big coronavirus aid bill and a growing list of requests from agriculture and other sectors for relief.
Separately, the agriculture sector is eagerly waiting for USDA to release rules and schedule signup for $16 billion in direct payments that are intended to compensate farmers for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The dairy, pork and produce sectors have been lobbying USDA not to impose payment limits on the aid.
Some $9.5 billion of the money for those payments came from the $2 trillion CARES Act enacted in late March, and there are proposals in the works for $50 billion or more in additional funding for farm assistance.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said he wants to start sending out the $16 billion in direct payments by the end of this month, and agricultural bankers are urging him to move as quickly as possible.
Southwest Kansas banker Shan Hanes, who serves on the board of directors at the American Bankers Association, told Agri-Pulse that USDA funding for producers was needed quickly. “We were told we would have information end of last week – first of this week,” Hanes said. “We really don’t have anything, and these guys are starting to get stressed.”
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called the Senate back into action this week, saying that he wanted to start moving some of President Donald Trump’s nominees.
“If it's essential for doctors, nurses, health care workers, truck drivers, grocery store workers and many other brave Americans to keep carefully manning their own duty stations, then my view and the view of my colleagues is, it's essential for Senators to carefully man ours and support those folks who are out there on the front lines,” McConnell told Fox News last week.
The Democratic-controlled House won’t go back into session until at least next week. Democratic leaders said it wasn’t safe to bring House members back this week given the severity of the pandemic in the nation’s capitol. But House Democrats are preparing their version of the next big coronavirus relief bill, which lawmakers have dubbed CARES 2.
New funding for a second round of farm payments is at the top of the priority list for agricultural groups.
The American Farm Bureau Federation is surveying its state affiliates on possible needs, and a bipartisan House proposal to authorize USDA to spend an additional $50 billion is on the list of priorities the Farm Bureau may support, said Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations for AFBF.
In addition to the $9.5 billion account that Perdue is using for the initial round of direct farm payments, the CARES Act also provided $14 billion to replenish USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp., money that becomes available to Perdue in July. But farm groups argue that more will be needed.
Pork producers, among others, have said that their $1.6 billion share of the direct payments won’t go nearly far enough to offset the steep drop in pork prices, and they also are seeking authority for USDA to compensate producers for hogs that have to had to be euthanized because of shuttered packing plants.
There are several other issues expected to be on the table as Congress considers the CARES 2 bill as well.
McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., issued a joint statement last week saying that they will insist on liability protections for employers to protect them against lawsuits for workers. That’s an issue for food processors but also growers.
“We're going to insist upon this reform, which is not related to money, as a condition for going forward,” McConnell told Fox News. “We need to protect the American people and the brave folks who have been on the front line taking care of our patients during this awful pandemic.”
The GOP demand will conflict with Democrats’ insistence on tougher worker protections. House Democrats have made it a priority to get pay increases and legal protections for agricultural workers and other employees deemed to be essential. They have an ally on one of those issues in Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. On Friday, he proposed a $12-an-hour temporary pay increase for May, June and July for workers in essential businesses. The federal government would fund 75% of the bonus; employers would pay the rest.
“Health care professionals, grocery store workers, food processors, and many others—the unsung patriots on the front line of this pandemic—every day risk their safety for the health and well-being of our country, and they deserve our unwavering support,” Romney said.
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House Democrats also have indicated they will push for a major increase in rural broadband funding as part of a scaled-back infrastructure initiative. A dozen House Democrats led by Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina proposed last week to invest roughly $80 billion over the next five years to deploy high-speed internet in underserved rural communities.
McConnell, however, said last week that infrastructure wouldn’t be in bill.
Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, May 4
9:30 a.m. — American Enterprise Institute webinar, “COVID-19: A food supply crisis or a hunger crisis?”
Noon — Rural mental health webinar, National Press Club, online,
Tuesday, May 5
Wednesday, May 6
10 a.m. — House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on COVID-19, 2359 Rayburn.
Thursday, May 7
Animal Agriculture Alliance annual summit, online, through Friday.
FAO monthly price index released.
Friday, May 8
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