House Democrats are struggling to agree among themselves on the shape of the next major coronavirus relief bill, while farm groups are lobbying for a major new infusion of cash to offset the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. 

The Senate, meanwhile, will hold a pair of pandemic-related hearings this week to focus attention on two issues important to agriculture, business liability protection and the state of rural broadband. 

Farm groups also will have their eye on USDA for release of rules for $16 billion in direct payments to help compensate farmers for the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The Farm Service Agency sent a directive last week to field offices to prepare for delivering the payments, but didn’t disclose key rules, including the limits on payments. 

The timing of the next, Phase 4 relief bill remains uncertain, as does the return of the House to action. House Democrats were told by the leadership on Thursday that they would get 72 hours notice before they had to return for votes. Democratic leaders have only said that it could be as soon as this week.

Also uncertain is what’s going to be in the Democrats’ package aside for the priorities that the Democratic leadership laid out last week. They include $500 billion in aid to state and local governments, a temporary, across-the-board increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and funding for the U.S. Postal Service. 

The “release of a jarring April jobs report,” which shows the unemployment rate has jumped to 14.7%, “stands to reinforce both the scope and scale of the Democratic bill,” according to an analysis by the Policy Resolution Group of Bracewell LLC. 

In outlining their plans to reporters last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer made no mention of additional funding for direct payments to farmers. But Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Agri-Pulse in an interview Friday, “We know we have to do more and we will work our hardest to make sure we get more funding for our family farmers.” 

The Phase 3 relief bill, known as the CARES Act and enacted in late March, provided USDA with $23.5 billion, including $14 billion to replenish the Commodity Credit Corp. spending authority. The CCC funding will become available to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to spend in July, but farm groups say that amount won't be enough. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation, for example, supports raising the CCC spending limit to $68 billion, which was what the limit would be if the existing $30 billion cap had been adjusted for inflation after it was set in the 1980s. A bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., would increase the limit to $68 billion. “If we could get ($50 billion) it would be a win for the farmers and for USDA,” AFBF Zippy Duvall told reporters on the sidelines of Vice President Mike Pence's meeting with food supply chain leaders in Iowa on Friday.

But Bustos said Democrats won’t agree to increase the CCC limit without putting restrictions on how Perdue can spend the money.  “I can tell you it will not be indiscriminately raised with Sonny Perdue getting the say where all of that money goes,” she said. 

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said earlier that he won’t support raising the limit without the House and Senate Ag committees having a say in how the money is spent. 

Democrats have been calling for the increase in SNAP benefits since March, and Pelosi made clear with a scriptural reference last week that it would still be a top priority. "We have to have SNAP. 'When I was hungry you fed me.' Why is that a mystery? … The food banks are overwhelmed. We have to have a significant increase in SNAP in there," Pelosi said.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has said he wants to see a payroll tax cut or capital gains tax cut included in a Phase 4 bill, and congressional Republicans have said they will demand business liability protection, which is a concern for both farms and packing plants.

“We're going to work with Congress,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Friday. “We're going to come up with hopefully a Phase 4. We encourage the House to maybe reconvene soon. It’d be helpful if Nancy Pelosi was here.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters last week that Republicans are working on a "narrowly crafted" liability provision that wouldn't protect companies from "gross negligence."

The Senate Judiciary Committee will delve into the liability issue at a hearing on Tuesday, and there is likely to be strong pushback on granting packers in particular liability protection. 

The witnesses will include representatives of two groups that have been critical of Trump’s and Perdue’s steps to push meatpackers to reopen: Anthony “Marc” Perrone, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents meatpacking employees, and Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. 

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“More than 3,000 workers in the meat industry have already gotten sick with COVID-19, and 17 workers have died. But instead of requiring meatpacking companies to implement safe practices, the President prefers to shield these corporations from responsibility for putting workers’ lives in danger,” Dixon’s group said after Trump issued an executive order aimed at getting plants to resume operations. 

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will focus on the state of internet service and the Federal Communications Commissions initiatives to expand broadband coverage as well as legislative proposals that would address the digital divide that has been exposed by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The witnesses will include Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association, and Gene Kimmelman, a senior adviser to USTelecom — The Broadband Association.

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

Monday, May 11

Tuesday, May 12

Noon — National Press Foundation webinar, “Global Trade: A Pandemic Primer: Where’s Our Food? Supply Chains and Food Insecurity.”

1 p.m. — Council for Agricultural Science and Technology webinar to announce the 2020 Borlaug CAST Communication Award winner. 

1 p.m. — The Food Institute webinar: “COVID-19: Regulatory Responses Affecting the Food & Agriculture Sector.”

2:30 p.m. — Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, “Examining Liability During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Dirksen G50. 

Wednesday, May 13

10 a.m. — Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, “The State of Broadband Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Dirksen G50. 

Thursday, May 14

Friday, May 15

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