Senators are privately discussing agricultural provisions in the next major coronavirus relief bill, which has taken on new urgency as cases have surged anew throughout much of the country. 

Neither the House nor the Senate have any regular sessions scheduled over the next two weeks, but Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and his colleagues already have started discussing potential agriculture provisions.

Also this week, House appropriators will begin to move their fiscal 2021 spending bills, including measures to fund the departments of Agriculture and Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Agency for International Development. 

The Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will act Monday on its FY21 bill, which includes funding for USDA, FDA and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The full Appropriations Committee is scheduled to debate amendments to the bill on Thursday. 

The committee also will act this week on the Interior-Environment bill, which funds EPA and Interior, and the State-Foreign Operations bill, which includes funding for USAID and food aid programs. 

“Congress will be intensely working” over the next two weeks, even though neither chamber is in regular session, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

As for the Senate’s coronavirus relief bill, Roberts told Agri-Pulse that he has been in discussions with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue as well as colleagues. The biggest issue from Roberts' perspective is replenishing USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. spending authority “without putting a lot of conditions” on how the money is spent, he said. 

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., insisted on provisions in the House-passed coronavirus relief bill, called the HEROES Act, that restrict how Perdue provides additional aid to farmers. 

But Roberts expressed concern that having the House and Senate Agriculture committees “basically tell the secretary” how to spend the money would amount to writing “a mini farm bill."

"I just don’t think that works," Roberts said. "I understand they have strong disagreements with the way that the secretary would spend the money, but we shouldn’t cross that Rubicon, I don’t think.” 

The American Farm Bureau Federation is asking Congress to increase USDA’s CCC authority from the current limit of $30 billion to $68 billion, which is what the limit would be if the $30 billion cap had been adjusted for inflation since it was first set in the 1980s. 

Pork producers, meanwhile, continue to push for compensation for animals that had to be euthanized because of processor disruptions. Senators from Iowa, North Carolina and Oklahoma introduced a bill last week to authorize such compensation while increasing funding for animal health surveillance and laboratories. 

The bill, called the Responding to Epidemic Losses and Investing in the Economic Future (RELIEF) for Producers Act, includes a provision to ensure that a pandemic-related emergency qualifies for CCC funding. 

The HEROES Act, which the Democratic-controlled House passed in May, includes $33 billion in aid for farmers, including a second round of Coronavirus Food Assistance payments and compensation for euthanized animals, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The House bill, which has not been considered in the Senate, also authorizes $35 billion for nutrition assistance for needy Americans, including a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. 

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, and other Democrats are pushing to get the SNAP increase included in the Senate’s aid package. 

“Families across the country need help right now,” she noted. The 15% increase in benefits would be worth $25 a month per person, she said. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters last Tuesday that he wants to see an aid package passed by August but that final decisions on the Senate version won’t be made until the week of July 20.

He reiterated that it must include liability protections to protect businesses as well as schools, universities and health care providers from virus-related lawsuits.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the White House also is open to providing small businesses additional help through the Paycheck Protection Program. Some $130 billion hasn’t been spent, and President Donald Trump signed a bill Saturday to extend the signup period to Aug. 8 

Mnuchin also said there also could be funding set aside to help schools and universities open in the fall. 

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

Monday, July 6

4 p.m. — House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee meeting to consider its fiscal 2021 spending bill, 2118 Rayburn.

4 p.m. — USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report. 

6 p.m. — House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee meeting to consider its FY21 spending bill, 2118 Rayburn.

Tuesday, July 7

11 a.m. — House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee meeting to consider its FY21 spending bill, 2118 Rayburn.

3 p.m. — House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee meeting to consider its FY21 spending bill, 2118 Rayburn.

Wednesday, July 8

11 a.m. — House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee meeting to consider its FY21 bill, 2118 Rayburn.

Thursday, July 9

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

10 a.m. — House Appropriations Committee meeting to consider the FY21 Agriculture and State-Foreign Operations spending bills, 1100 Longworth. 

Friday, July 10

9 a.m. — House Appropriations Committee meeting to consider the FY21 Interior-Environment bill. 

Noon — USDA releases monthly Crop Production report and World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates

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