Congressional leaders are due to meet with President Joe Biden today as lawmakers face a Friday deadline for keeping USDA and several other departments funded.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., continued to blame House Republicans for the impasse. 

“Unfortunately, our House Republican colleagues are still struggling to figure themselves out,” Schumer said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said a shutdown was “entirely avoidable.” “Shutting down the government is harmful to the country, and it never produces positive outcomes on either policy or politics,” he said.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, who is under pressure from GOP hard-liners to insist that Democrats agree to new spending cuts and policy provisions, claims Senate Democrats are insisting on spending that their own chamber didn’t agree to.

By the way: The chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Bob Good, R-Va., is continuing to keep the heat on Johnson. He told Fox News Monday that a “government shutdown is not ideal, but it's not the worst thing. It would be worse to exacerbate the problem to further increase our debt and our spending.”

He went on to say of House Republicans, “The only leverage we have when we have one house of one branch [of government] is to be willing to say ‘no,’ to be willing to walk away.”

For USDA employees: If there’s a shutdown, plans posted online would go into effect, unless they are updated. 

Tester, Rounds file resolution to overturn Paraguayan import decision

Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., on Monday officially added their names to the list of lawmakers looking to use the Congressional Review Act to reverse the Agriculture Department’s recent decision lifting a long-standing ban on beef imports from Paraguay.
 The two lawmakers on Monday introduced a CRA resolution to overturn the agency’s decision to allow beef imports from Paraguay, citing concerns about potential Foot and Mouth Disease risks. The measure would require a simple majority vote from both chambers to head to the president’s desk, where he could either sign it or veto it. Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
 Nineteen House members filed a similar measure last week after expressing concern about the accuracy of the agency's analysis of FMD risks in Paraguay, which looked at information from site visits in 2008 and 2014, records from the nation's animal health agency, scientific literature and publicly available information.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the USDA’s rule at a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing, noting the agency conducted “multiple audits” of Paraguay’s animal health system. “We’re convinced their system is equivalent in terms of their ability to detect, their ability to quarantine, their ability to respond quickly,” he said.

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USDA trade mission heads to Angola

USDA’s first agribusiness trade mission is in Angola through Thursday, led by Deputy Secretary Xochitl Torres Small, who is accompanied by representatives from the Kansas and Wisconsin ag departments as well as 16 U.S. companies and organizations.

“Members of the U.S. delegation will conduct business-to-business meetings with potential buyers from Angola, as well as from neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo,” USDA said. “They will also receive in-depth market briefings from USDA Foreign Agricultural Service staff and industry trade experts, gaining insights that will help inform their export strategies for Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The full list of participants is posted online. Torres Small will head to Mozambique on Feb. 29.

Center for Biological Diversity releases species habitat maps                                                                        

The Center for Biological Diversity has developed maps to identify areas where reducing or eliminating pesticide use and employing conservation measures can protect more than four dozen endangered species.

The group reached a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency requiring EPA to prepare strategies addressing how to protect federally listed species from pesticides. The agency has been sued numerous times over its failure to meet its Endangered Species Act commitments, leading to the development of a herbicide strategy, which is in progress, and a pilot project addressing 27 separate species.

Ag groups such as the American Soybean Association have been critical of the maps prepared for the pilot project for identifying areas where species do not reside. CBD said in its press release announcing availability of the maps that “nearly all the areas the EPA has identified for limited pesticide use are based on species’ historical ranges. The center’s work focuses on mapping areas where the plants and animals live now — areas where avoiding pesticide use is critical to species’ survival.”

The group plans to release 500 species maps by the end of 2024 for use by EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the public.

House members raise concerns about agricultural trade deficit

More than 20 House members are pressing U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for “strong support and swift action” in addressing the nation's projected $30 billion agricultural trade deficit. 

The lawmakers, led by House Ag members Max Miller, R-Ohio, and Angie Craig, D-Minn., worry the deficit may stem from the U.S. falling behind competitors when it comes to establishing new trade pacts, according to a letter they sent to the two leaders on Monday. They recommend Vilsack and Tai “recommit” to comprehensive trade agreements, expand domestic trade promotion programs, and work to reform the World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution process.

USDA estimates put American ag exports at $169.5 billion for fiscal 2024, while imports are projected to reach $200 billion. 

Other factors at play? The deficit should be “no cause for alarm,” Tai said in a speech at USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum earlier this month, noting that much of the import demand is being driven by products like distilled spirits, tropical fruits, and coffee. "The U.S. dollar is extraordinarily strong at the moment, which gives American consumers more buying power on the international market,” she said.

Questions, comments, tips? Email Steve Davies.