The beef industry will face scrutiny this week from senators who are under pressure to curb the pricing power of big meatpackers, while the full Senate is nearing a vote on a bill to accelerate the development of ag carbon markets.

On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee is bringing in representatives of producers as well as experts on the meatpacking industry and cattle markets for a hearing on industry pricing practices.

According to sources, the witnesses at the hearing will be Rabobank animal protein analyst Dustin Aherin; Kansas State University economist Glynn Tonsor; Mary Hendrickson of the University of Missouri, a rural sociologist who studies food systems; Kansas cattle producer Mark Gardiner; and South Dakota auctioneer Justin Tupper.

Critics of the packing industry began pushing for such a hearing in the last Congress, but then-Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., refused to call one.

Committee member Deb Fischer, R-Neb., told Agri-Pulse the hearing will “educate a lot of my colleagues on the issues that we're facing, how the different segments of the industry are tied together, especially in my state.”

It’s far from clear, however, whether the hearing will result in legislation, although Congress does need to extend a livestock price reporting law this year.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told senators last week that he is working on a plan that could significantly increase meat processing capacity. He would not provide any details of what the department is considering. 

The Growing Climate Solutions Act, which the Senate could vote on as soon as this week, would authorize USDA to certify credit verifiers and farm advisers. The bill, which has more than 50 Senate sponsors and broad backing from farm and agribusiness interests, also includes provisions aimed at protecting farmer rights and ensuring the needs of beginning and minority farmers are considered. 

The lead GOP sponsor, Rep. Mike Braun of Indiana, said he was optimistic the bill would get a vote this week after addressing concerns raised by Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., before the Senate broke for the weekend.

The House has yet to act on its version. The top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Glenn Thompson, has questioned the need for the bill, but he told Agri-Pulse that he was open to discussing it. "I am always willing to come to the table and see what we can do,” he said.

He also said he wanted to see the committee hold hearings on a series of climate-related bills that the Republicans announced in April. One of the measures would encourage private sector funding of USDA conservation programs.

The House's lead GCSA sponsor, Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., expressed confidence that the committee would take it up relatively quickly. Spanberger chairs the subcommittee that oversees conservation programs. 

“I do think within the House, we should expect to see a similar level of bipartisan support given how valuable of a program it would be to the farmers and producers that would want to make use of it,” she said.

Meanwhile this week, briefs are due to be filed by Wednesday in a Wisconsin lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of USDA’s minority farmer debt relief program. The judge in the case issued a temporary restraining order barring USDA from making payments to minority farmers while he considers the lawsuit. 

On Thursday, the Supreme Court will consider a petition from the North American Meat Institute in a lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 12, which would impose animal confinement standards on farms that sell products into the state. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law.

On Capitol Hill, congressional Democrats are moving ahead on a two-track process of passing President Joe Biden’s infrastructure, climate and domestic spending proposals.

A group of more than 20 senators has put forward a broad plan to spend $1 trillion over five years on infrastructure, including rural broadband, but as of last week, they had still not agreed on how to pay for it. The White House and congressional Democrats continue to resist GOP proposals to index the gas tax to inflation and impose a surcharge on electric vehicles.

A member of the Senate group, Ohio Republican Rob Portman, said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that progressives are seeking a "grab bag of progressive priorities. Ours is about core infrastructure, and it is paid for. And so, it is paid for without raising taxes, which is key."

Democrats are simultaneously preparing to move as much as $6 trillion in additional spending through the budget reconciliation process. A reconciliation bill could pass the Senate with no Republican support as long as all 50 Democrats vote for it, and it’s far from clear that they would.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., confirmed that he is looking at including immigration reform provisions in the package on the basis that it would be a source of revenue to offset the bill’s spending and thus qualify for being included in a budget reconciliation bill. The idea is that legalizing immigrants will increase federal tax revenue.

"You have heroes and heroines in the undocumented community who have kept this economy going in the midst of the pandemic,” Sanders told reporters. 

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

Monday, June 21

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

Tuesday, June 22

9:30 a.m. — Senate Agriculture subcommittee hearing, "Renewable Energy — Growth and Opportunities for our Rural Economies,” 562 Dirksen.

Wednesday, June 23

10 a.m. — House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Interior Department, 1324 Longworth.

1 p.m. — House Agriculture Committee hearing on the farm safety net, 1300 Longworth.

2 p.m. — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on clean energy needs of rural and low-income communities, 366 Dirksen.

2:30 p.m. — Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, “Examining Markets, Transparency, and Prices from Cattle Producer to Consumer,” 562 Dirksen.

Thursday, June 24

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

10 a.m. — Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, “The Role of Natural and Nature-Based Features in Water Resources Projects,” 406 Dirksen.

Friday, June 25

9 a.m. — USDA releases monthly Food Price Outlook.

Spencer Chase, Ben Nuelle and Steve Davies contributed to this report.

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