Congressional leaders have reached a deal to avoid a partial shutdown of USDA and several other departments and agencies this weekend.

In a joint statement Wednesday afternoon, the leaders said they had reached agreement on six of 12 appropriations bills. Those six include the bills covering USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Interior and Transportation. Details of the legislation were not released.

The agreement gives Congress until next Friday to pass those six measures. To keep USDA and the other affected agencies from running out of money this week, the deal calls for lawmakers to pass another short-term continuing resolution.

By the way: FDA would lose access to approximately 25% of its workforce if Congress failed pass an appropriations bill or an extension to the current one, says a former agency official. Steven Grossman, the executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, said about 75% of the FDA workforce would be available in a shutdown, unless some employees have to be called back for a public health emergency. 

Vilsack ‘happy’ to discuss different ways to use CCC 

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack used a Senate Ag Committee hearing to reiterate his offer to use USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation spending authority to help farmers when they’re struggling because of elevated input costs and a slump in commodity prices. Vilsack has suggested the CCC could provide an alternative to funding an increase in commodity program reference prices.

He told Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he would be “happy to work with Congress to find a creative way to utilize the resources of the CCC to try to address some of the concerns that you all have relative to reference prices – as I did when you requested assistance on trade and international food assistance.”

In case you were wondering: In response to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Vilsack said he wouldn’t be the longest serving ag secretary ever. That honor belongs to “Tama Jim” Wilson of Tama, Iowa, who served from 1897-1913 under three different presidents.

McConnell to step down as Senate Republican leader 

Senate Republicans are searching for a new leader for the first time since 2007. Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday he plans to step down from his leadership role in November.

McConnell, 82, is the longest-serving party leader in the Senate and is also a member of the Agriculture Committee, where he has been a staunch advocate for industrial hemp.

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“I always imaged a moment when I had total clarity and peace about the sunset of my work,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “A moment when I’m certain I have helped preserve the ideals I so strongly believe. That day arrived today.”

Looking ahead: Candidates to replace McConnell are expected to include GOP Whip John Thune, a South Dakotan on the Senate Ag Committee, as well as John Barrasso of Wyoming, and John Cornyn of Texas.

Thune said in a statement that McConnell’s retirement “leaves enormous shoes to fill and it’s with humility that I look forward to having a discussion with my colleagues about what the future holds for the Senate Republican Conference and a new generation of leadership.” 

Cattle producers hit hard by Texas wildfires

USDA and state officials are assessing the damages from wildfires that have ravaged portions of the Texas panhandle.

Texas Ag Commissioner Sid Miller told Agri-Pulse Wednesday the wildfires had potentially wiped out “tens of thousands” of cattle, although it’s too early to determine the extent of the damage. Texas has over 11 million head of cattle and most of them are in the panhandle, where the fires are sweeping across the state. To help producers, the department has set up livestock evacuation centers and has activated the hay hotline for individuals to donate money or hay to producers in need. 

By the way: Miller is also encouraging people to donate money to the Texas Agriculture Relief Fund to help producers rebuild infrastructure that was decimated by the fires. Miller said producers impacted by the fires should use the Agri-Stress Hotline, a mental health and suicide hotline for farmers in the state of Texas.

Miller said his department also will continue to get meal assistance to students whose schools had to close.

Federal view: Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency, is urging producers to get documentation for losses and to go online and start applying for disaster assistance. “Reach directly out to me if you've got questions, my phone number’s on the internet. Email me. It's important to have the documentation.”

Crapo keeping breaks on tax bill

The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, isn’t relenting on a bipartisan tax bill that includes an expansion of key tax incentives used by farmers.

“Efforts to pressure Senate Republicans to rubber-stamp the Wyden/Smith tax deal have been counterproductive,” Crapo said in a lengthy statement on Tuesday, referring to the bill worked out by Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith, R-Mo. “While my concerns with the bill may be frustrating to some, they should not be surprising.”

Crapo’s objections largely revolve around an expansion of the child tax credit that was a top priority for Democrats. The bill, which passed the House 357-70, would restore 100% bonus depreciation through 2025 and increase limits on the Section 179 expensing allowance. 

“While I remain committed to seeking a bipartisan resolution that a majority of Senate Republicans can support, I hope the bill’s proponents commit to pursuing a more constructive strategy to achieve a mutually agreeable outcome,” Crapo said.

He said it: “It is an extraordinary waste of time.” – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on

how even just the threat of a shutdown forces staff at USDA to plan for one. That has happened four times during the latest budget impasse.