The Senate Appropriations Committee has released draft fiscal 2021 bills that would provide additional increases for rural broadband and other priorities while offering less than House Democrats for EPA and other regulatory agencies. 

Release of the FY21 bills could pave the way for negotiations with House Democrats and the White House on a government-wide spending bill that could be passed before the end of the year. 

The 2021 budget year started Oct. 1, but a continuing resolution that expires Dec. 11 has been keeping the government funded at FY20 levels. 

The House passed a package of FY21 funding bills in July that included budgets for USDA, FDA, EPA and the Interior Department. 

That Senate funding bill for USDA and FDA released Tuesday by the GOP-controlled Appropriations Committee includes $400 million in new funding for USDA’s ReConnect program, which provides grants and loans to expand broadband service to rural areas. The House-passed legislation earmarks $990 million for the program. 

The explanatory statement that accompanies the Senate bill expresses concern that the ReConnect application process “creates barriers to participation and directs the Secretary to allow entities of any structure, including partnerships and infrastructure applications, to apply provided sufficient assurances are given that broadband service will be provided to the subject area through contractual arrangements.”

Both the Senate and House bills would provide about $3.3 billion in FY21 for agricultural research programs, up from $3.2 billion in fiscal 2020. Both bills earmark $435 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a competitive grants program, up from $425 million in FY20. 

The Senate measure would provide $1.7 billion for the Food for Peace international food assistance program and $220 million for the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program. The House bill earmarks $1.8 billion for Food for Peace and $235 million for the McGovern-Dole program. The White House has repeatedly proposed to kill both programs. 

The Senate’s FY21 Interior-Environment spending bill would fund EPA at $9.1 billion, about the same amount as FY20. The House measure would increase the agency’s budget to $9.4 billion for FY21, $2.7 billion more than the White House wanted. 

The Senate bill would fund the Interior Department at $13.6 billion, about $200 million less than the House measure. 

The Senate measure includes full funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which compensates local governments where federal land is located. 

It remains uncertain when Congress will reach an agreement on the spending measures. 

The House and Senate have yet to agree on top-line spending levels on the various appropriations bills, including the funding measures that include USDA and FDA, and Interior and EPA. 

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But in a message to House Democrats on Monday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., listed the FY21 appropriations as a priority for the lame duck session. 

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., was asked on Monday about the chances of passing an omnibus FY21 billon in the lame duck and said, “I would hope so, but we just have to see what unfolds. We’ll probably know in a week or two.” 

The Senate bills don’t include a series of provisions approved by House Democrats that are targeted at rolling back Trump administration policies. 

One would block USDA from using an executive order issued by Trump and intended to keep meatpacking operations operating during the COVID-19 crisis. Critics say the order put plant workers at risk. Another provision in the House legislation would stop the administration from carrying out rules tightening eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and limiting the benefits some people receive.

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