House Democrats look to clear the $1.9 trillion stimulus package for President Joe Biden’s signature this week, while the Senate turns to moving more of his Cabinet nominees, including his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan.
Also this week, the Senate Agriculture Committee takes its first step toward crafting a potentially transformative climate policy that could transform farm programs by holding a hearing on Thursday to field recommendations from producers.
The Senate passed Biden's massive American Rescue Plan on party lines 50-49 on Saturday. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., then teed up action on three of Biden’s nominees, including Regan as well as Merrick Garland, a former Supreme Court nominee picked to be attorney general; and House Agriculture Committee member Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat who expressed interest in becoming agriculture secretary but was instead named to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
The Senate will act first on Fudge and Garland before moving to Regan, a North Carolina state regulator who has broad support from farm groups. During his nomination hearing last month, he promised to work with farm groups as he makes decisions on the Renewable Fuel Standard, Clean Water and other regulatory issues.
Biden wants the stimulus package on his desk by next Sunday, when the $300-a-week in bonus unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire.
The House has to vote again on the bill because of modifications the Senate made, some of which were demanded by moderate Democrats. Those included adding language to allow the $340 billion in state and local aid included in the feature to be used for broadband improvements as well as water and sewer infrastructure.
“The House now hopes to have a bipartisan vote on this life-saving legislation and urges Republicans to join us in recognition of the devastating reality of this vicious virus and economic crisis and of the need for decisive action,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“The American Rescue Plan takes a tremendous step forward to defeat the virus and provide relief to families and small businesses in need.”
Republicans contend the bill is wildly over-expensive, and GOP senators forced debate on a series of amendments intended to highlight its flaws, including one that sought to strip the bill of provisions that would provide direct payments to minority farmers who hold direct and guaranteed loans. The amendment failed on a party-line 49-50 vote.
The bill also contains $22.7 billion in agriculture and nutrition assistance provisions, including $3.6 billion in aid for the food supply chain as well as $500 million in aid to rural health care providers and an extension through the summer of the temporary 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
A few farm groups, including the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and National Farmers Union, supported the bill — or at least the ag provisions.
NFU President Rob Larew said the bill’s ag provisions were crafted to address unmet needs in the sector as well as compensating minority farmers for a legacy of discrimination. “Specifically carving out resources to address those farmers who have not had an equal playing field is a responsible thing to do," he said.
Republicans argue that it is unfair, if not unconstitutional, to base payments on a farmer’s race or ethnicity.
As for the climate policy hearing on Thursday, Senate Ag Committee members will “hear from agriculture leaders broadly about their recommendations on voluntary carbon actions that farmers and ranchers and foresters can be involved in, and want to be involved in, terms of addressing the climate crisis in a way that’s meaningful and successful for them,” committee Chair Debbie Stabenow told Agri-Pulse.
Stabenow is expected to soon release a new version of the Growing Climate Solutions Act that she introduced with Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., to accelerate the development of ag carbon markets by authorizing a role for the Agriculture Department in overseeing the credit certification process.
Congress also may consider a significant increase in funding for conservation programs to encourage farmers to implement climate-friendly practices.
The committee’s ranking Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, has expressed concern that carbon markets may benefit credit traders more than farmers and said he wanted to know what farmers believe is the correct policy.
“I’d like to know what they’re interested in, where they see the potential that we have regarding farmers getting paid for the great work that they’re doing, and then start figuring out some steps forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be the keynote speaker for the School Nutrition Association's annual legislative action conference on Tuesday. Stabenow has indicated that she wants to get a new child nutrition reauthorization bill passed for the first time in more than a decade.
Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere (all times EDT):
Monday, March 8
School Nutrition Association annual legislative action conference, through Wednesday.
Tuesday, March 9
Noon — Heritage Foundation forum on President Joe Biden’s climate and energy policies.
2:15 p.m. — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks to the School Nutrition Association.
Wednesday, March 10
10 a.m. — House Small Business Committee hearing on next steps for the Paycheck Protection Program, 2360 Rayburn.
10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, “Building Back Better: Addressing Climate Change in the Electricity Sector and Fostering Economic Growth,” G-50 Dirksen.
Thursday, March 11
8:30 a.m. — USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.
9 a.m. — House Agriculture Committee hearing on food insecurity in America, 1300 Longworth.
10:15 a.m. — Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, “Farmers and Foresters: Opportunities to Lead in Tackling Climate Change,” 106 Dirksen.
11 a.m. — Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, “Competition Policy for the Twenty-First Century: The Case for Antitrust Reform,” 226 Dirksen.
Friday, March 12
Ben Nuelle contributed to this report.
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