Some $90 billion in agriculture and child nutrition spending that’s part of the stalled Build Back Better bill is in play as the White House and congressional Democrats disassemble the $1.7 trillion measure and possibly move some of the funding into other legislation.
President Joe Biden has expressed optimism that the bill’s $550 billion in climate provisions, which include new funding for farm bill conservation programs, could be passed separately along with a limited amount of social spending.
Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the bill’s $10 billion in child nutrition funding, which includes funding to expand summer feeding programs and make more children eligible for free school lunches, could be added to a child nutrition reauthorization bill this year.
But it’s far from clear that Democrats can agree on what to include in a pared-down BBB bill that could get the critical support of Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., or whether the House and Senate can agree on a separate child nutrition bill, which would need some Republican support.
Time also is running short for Democratic leaders, since Congress rarely accomplishes much after July of an election year.
Democratic leaders are “trying to construct something that meets the needs of Sens. Manchin and Sinema specifically, so we’re continuing to feel good about it,” said Eric Deeble, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Manchin, who has criticized some of the bill’s clean energy provisions, has not raised concerns about the climate-smart ag provisions when NSAC members have raised those issues with him, Deeble said.
Vilsack and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also have expressed confidence that the bill’s ag provisions have broad support.
"In my discussions with a number of senators, that's not the area where there is disagreement or concern," Vilsack told reporters.
The BBB bill would authorize payments of $25 an acre to farmers who plant cover crops, increase funding for farm bill conservation programs by more than $20 billion and provide for $2.35 billion in conservation technical assistance over 10 years.
The House and Senate are both in recess this week, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., expressed confidence at her latest weekly news conference that Democrats could agree on a smaller bill that could be moved through the budget reconciliation process and not need GOP support in the Senate. But she stressed that the slimmed-down BBB bill would have to include provisions to expand health care and child care as well as climate spending.
“I’m sure we can agree on something significant,” Pelosi said. “Whatever you call it, we want to make a difference in transforming the workplace … (and) protecting the planet.”
Manchin, for his part, says the negotiations must start from scratch, and he continues to emphasize his concerns about inflation. But he also continued to suggest in recent days he is open to increasing taxes to pay for the legislation and imposing requirements that pharmaceutical companies negotiate with Medicare on drug prices.
“Get a tax code that works. Take care of the pharmaceutical companies that are gouging the people with high prices. We can fix that. We can do a lot of good things. We have a lot of good things we can do,” he told reporters ahead of the congressional break.
Stabenow has acknowledged the bill’s electric vehicle incentives would have to be reworked to satisfy the West Virginia senator. Manchin has objected to providing bigger tax credits for the purchase of union-made EVs over those manufactured outside the U.S. or without union labor.
Even the climate provisions of the BBB bill could be challenging to pass, if moderate Democrats don't see the election benefits, according to an analysis by ClearView Energy Partners, which gives a pared-down bill a less than even chance of being enacted. "We think odds could diminish if the bill is not substantially finished" before Biden's State of the Union speech March 1, the analysis says.
No GOP support would be required to move a pared-down BBB bill, as long as all 50 Senate Democrats vote for it under the budget reconciliation process.
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But prospects for $10 billion in nutrition provisions will depend on some level of Republican support if that money is attached to a child nutrition reauthorization bill, as Vilsack has suggested. A reauthorization bill would need 60 votes to pass the Senate, which means at least 10 Republicans would have to vote for it, and getting that GOP support would require the bill to have broad, bipartisan backing in the Ag Committee.
Neither the Ag Committee nor the House Education and Labor Committee, which has jurisdiction over child nutrition programs, have produced a draft bill yet.
Roger Szemraj, a principal with OFW Law who lobbies on food and nutrition policy, said it’s uncertain how the committees would pay for the $10 billion in additional spending. The revenue used to pay for the nutrition spending is currently part of the BBB legislation.
Szemraj said it’s unlikely the funding needed for the nutrition spending and the language directing how the money is spent would be separated between the reconciliation and reauthorization bills.
Another lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said moving the BBB provisions to the child nutrition bill risks losing the $10 billion needed to pay for the summer nutrition assistance and free school meal expansion. "I don’t see where they find the money to do that and all the things that people want to get done in child nutrition reauthorization," the lobbyist said.
Senate Ag also faces a significant time crunch on the nutrition bill, the lobbyist said, because Stabenow wants to clear the decks for the panel to start working on a new farm bill, which is due in 2023.
Stabenow has not announced any plans yet for moving the child nutrition bill or for starting farm bill hearings. The committee’s top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, wants to move a bill but would like the committee to hold hearings first.
Boozman “believes these are important programs and deserve hearings and discussions informed by stakeholder feedback to determine the proper path forward,” said Boozman spokesman Patrick Creamer. “The approach must be a bipartisan, bicameral process that engages all sides.”
As for the BBB bill, White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined Monday to discuss the state of negotiations with senators, and she insisted there is no deadline for moving the legislation.
"The president has been in touch with a range of senators. We’re just not going to outline those or confirm those specifically,” Psaki said.
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