Lawmakers are inching ever closer to a government shutdown. It’s true that Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, is still two weeks away, but House conservatives continue to play hardball with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. 

The GOP leadership on Tuesday postponed a key vote needed to bring up the fiscal 2024 defense appropriations bill, a measure normally popular with Republicans and relatively easy to pass. A group of hard-line conservatives are demanding the leadership’s commitment to carry out deeper cuts in federal spending. 

“They've got to come forward with a real plan,” Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., told reporters. He went on, “I'm not going to abide, or cast a vote in favor of, just continuing the massive increases in the debt, the spending and just keep rolling.”

Across the Capitol: Senators continue to propose new amendments for a package of spending bills that includes funding for USDA and FDA. The latest proposals include an amendment by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that would provide $25 million for the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority, or AgARDA. Despite being authorized in the 2018 farm bill, AgARDA has never received enough funding to get off the ground

Another amendment, by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., would increase funding for dairy business innovation initiatives. 

EPA official: Ruling threatens ephemeral streams, wetlands

Well more than half the wetlands in the United States are threatened by the Supreme Court’s Sackett decision, an EPA water official said on a webinar Wednesday.

“It is clear that the Supreme Court decision erodes longstanding clean water protections,” said Rose Kwok, an environmental scientist in the Office of Water.

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers plan to hold listening sessions this fall to discuss how to implement the Sackett decision. The agencies issued a rule Aug. 29 to comply with the court’s decision, which weakened protections for “adjacent wetlands” and removed the “significant nexus” test.

Kwok also said 1.2 million to 4.9 million miles of ephemeral streams are threatened by the decision. 

Don’t miss: EPA has agreed to a deadline of May 2024 for addressing the impact of herbicides on endangered species. The agency also promised to finish a similar strategy for insecticides by early 2025.

Lawmakers field concerns about H-2A wage rates

Members of the International Fresh Produce Association got an update Wednesday from Reps. Don Davis, D-N.C., and Rick Crawford, R-Ark., on the House Agriculture Committee’s farm labor working group. The group has been assigned to look into challenges with the H-2A program.

Crawford says the group is three months into the six-month timeline, with an interim report anticipated soon. The two most common issues the lawmakers have heard so far are the adverse effect wage rate and the inability to manage H-2A worker applications online.

Take note: Davis says the report will be an “opportunity to elevate” the issues with colleagues, even though the House Agriculture Committee doesn’t have jurisdiction over the H-2A program.

State ag officials seek more regional flexibility in disaster aid

State agriculture officials want more flexibility in federal disaster relief and conservation programs to better help producers in the wake of natural disasters and severe weather events.

Members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture approved an action item at their annual meeting on Wednesday calling for USDA and Congress to fill “gaps” in insurance coverage and federal disaster relief programs, noting that “farmers need more than additional debt to recover from destroyed crops or the loss of their livestock or annual income.” 

A second action item called for the USDA to “implement regional or individual timelines and deadlines” for conservation programs, particularly when it came to those focusing on disaster recovery.

New Mexico Ag Secretary Jeff Witte, whose state is still recovering from last year's devastating wildfires, said policymakers should give state and county-level USDA officials more funding flexibility, which they can tailor to fit producers in the wake of the specific natural disaster .“I think it’s really key that we empower those on the ground to address the concerns immediately, as opposed to being hung up by a process,” he told Agri-Pulse.

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Lawmaker presses for more scrutiny of foreign-owned farmland

Texas GOP Rep. Pete Sessions is accusing the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. – also known as CFIUS – for being lax when it comes to investigating the tens of millions of acres of farmland owned by foreign investors. 

Sessions, speaking at a House Financial Services Committee hearing Wednesday, said CFIUS would be paying closer attention to foreign-owned farmland if the secretary of agriculture was a member, as some lawmakers are demanding. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., introduced a bill – the Agricultural Security Risk Review Act – in May that would make the USDA chief a member.

Paul Rosen, an assistant secretary at the Treasury Department and witness at the hearing, stressed that CFIUS already works closely with USDA to monitor potential threats from foreign acquisitions of farmland and agricultural companies.

Take note: Much of the concern at the hearing was over Chinese investment in the U.S., but Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., called foreign purchases of U.S. farmland a relatively “benign” activity.

He said it: “When they buy American farmland from an American, that American puts the money in a U.S. bank where it’s available to build the American economy … and if we do have a fight with China, we can simply seize the farmland just as they will take all of our investments in China,” – Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.

Steve Davies, Jacqui Fatka and Bill Tomson contributed to this report.