The Senate is set to approve President Joe Biden’s nominees for Interior secretary and U.S. Trade Representative this week, while the House looks to jump-start a congressional debate over immigration reform and farm labor.

The House will vote on a pair of immigration bills, including the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would provide a path to legal status for undocumented agricultural workers and expand the H-2A visa program; the House passed the bill in 2019, but it went nowhere in the Senate, then controlled by Republicans.

House Democratic leaders hope to spur a Senate debate on immigration by moving both the FWMA and the second bill, which would provide a path to citizenship to Dreamers, immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children and now have legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Announcing plans for the debate, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the bills were designed to fix a “broken immigration system.”

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and other Republicans have said immigration legislation is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate until the border is first secured against illegal crossings. "It's gonna be really hard to get a bipartisan bill put together on anything that has a legalization component until you stop the flow," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. told reporters. 

But Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who has been serving as the ag sector’s GOP point man on the ag labor issue, told Agri-Pulse he was still hopeful something could be done to expand H-2A.

“We have an ag worker shortage. We had it at the height of unemployment,” Tillis said. "Every ear it’s a crisis. Every year, I have farmers saying they’re having difficulty planting crops, and then they’re having difficulty harvesting them.”

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which is co-sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., would streamline the H-2A application process while reforming the process of setting minimum wage rates. The wage rates would be frozen for one year and then increases would be capped for most of the country at 3.25% for the following nine years. To address demand for year-round workers, the bill would provide 20,000 year-round visas a year while allowing for an increase or decrease depending on demand.

The bill is backed by some major ag groups, including the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Milk Producers Federation, National Farmers Union and the Western Growers Association, but the American Farm Bureau Federation has declined to support it, arguing in part that a provision would make farms vulnerable to lawsuits by H-2A workers.

“Although some provisions in the bill align with our policy goals, flaws and shortcomings in the bill are too great for us to support it,” said Allison Crittenden, a congressional relations director for AFBF.

“Our goal is to achieve solutions that work for all of American agriculture, and we believe this legislation falls short of achieving the meaningful reform we need," she added. "We look forward to working in the Senate on ag labor legislation that more closely aligns with AFBF policies."

For now, the Senate is pressing ahead with filling Biden’s Cabinet, starting with a vote Monday on the nomination of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who would become the first Native American to head the Interior Department.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has also filed cloture to bring up the nomination of Katharine Tai for U.S. Trade Representative. Unlike Haaland, Tai has broad GOP support. The Senate Finance Committee approved Tai’s nomination on a voice vote.

Tai — formerly the top trade lawyer for the House Ways and Means Committee and chief counsel on China trade enforcement at USTR — also has strong backing from farm organizations, although she has provided few clues about how the Biden administration will deal with China on trade. U.S. Meat Export Federation President and CEO Dan Halstrom said Tai’s ag support “reflects her extensive qualifications” to lead the trade office.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., offered some of the few critical words for Tai when she refused at her confirmation hearing to confirm that she could support a hypothetical free trade agreement with no tariffs, quotas or trade barriers. Toomey said her answer worried him about her goals in future negotiations.

As for Haaland, most Republicans oppose her, citing her criticism of fossil fuels, but four GOP senators broke party ranks on Thursday to vote to advance the nomination to a final vote: Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, plus Susan Collins of Maine and Lyndsey Graham of South Carolina.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., defended Haaland last week, saying she “understands that protecting public lands and boosting rural communities and jobs are two sides of the same coin. Too often in the debates in Washington, D.C., the debate really involves something resembling false choices. You can either be for jobs or you can be for protecting your treasures.”

But Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said Haaland would “continue the job-killing, anti-energy attack on Wyoming’s livelihood that President Biden started using his first week in office.”

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

Monday, March 15

National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, online through Wednesday.

9:30 a.m. — American Enterprise Institute online forum, “Extending US leadership on 5G: A conversation with FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr.”

Tuesday, March 16

9 a.m. — Farm Foundation online forum, “Emerging Carbon Markets in Agriculture: Issues and Opportunities."

10 a.m. — Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the nomination of Julie Su to be deputy secretary of labor, 106 Dirksen.

Wednesday, March 17

10 a.m. — Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on federal actions to expand broadband, 253 Russell.

10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, “Examining the Challenges Facing Drinking Water and Waste Water Infrastructure Projects,” G50 Dirksen.

11:30 a.m. — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks to the National Anti-Hunger Conference.

2:30 p.m. — Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee hearing on the Paycheck Protection Program, 301 Russell.

Thursday, March 18

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

Friday, March 19

Ben Nuelle contributed to this report.

For more news, go to: