WASHINGTON, March 1, 2015 – School nutrition directors and the Obama administration are drawing lines for a coming battle over reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that raised standards for school meals. 

A thousand members of the School Nutrition Association, which is holding its annual legislative action conference this week, will be on Capitol Hill Tuesday to lobby both for some changes in the standards as well as some extra funding school officials say they need to pay for the cost of more healthful meals.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., will address the group on Wednesday. SNA members are hoping he’ll provide some clues on his timeline for rewriting the law.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has tangled with SNA over its efforts to give schools some relief from the standards, won’t appear before the group. Instead, he will be talking up the school meal standards and announcing a new child hunger initiative during a speech Monday across town at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, sponsored by the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group, and Feeding America, which represents food banks.

Getting lawmakers’ attention this week won’t be easy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday morning will address a joint session of Congress that some Democrats will likely boycott, and the Department of Homeland Security is once again in danger of running out of funding.

The Senate last week agreed to fund DHS through the rest of fiscal 2015, but House GOP leaders, in a stunning embarrassment, were unable to pass even a three-week stopgap spending bill for DHS because of opposition from conservatives who insist on blocking President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The GOP leadership instead had to settle for a one-week extension, which Democrats supported.

House Speaker John Boehner, interviewed on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, sought to shift the focus to the president’s immigration policy. “Remember what’s causing this -- it’s the president of the United States overreaching.”

On the other side of Capitol Hill, leaders of the Senate Finance Committee are struggling to agree on the final details of a bill to provide Obama with the fast-track authority he needs to finish pending trade agreements.

Sources said senators had been struggling to agree on the procedures needed to get a trade agreement to a final up-or-down vote in Congress, the key feature of any Trade Promotion Authority legislation.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is back on the Hill on Wednesday, this time before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee She’s certain to be grilled again about the administration’s proposals to re-define the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for electric utilities. During hearings last month, McCarthy steadfastly refused to back off either proposal, though she continues to promise unspecified revisions will be made to the water rule, which defines streams, ditches and other features that constitute the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS).

A House Agriculture subcommittee will hold a separate hearing on the WOTUS rule Thursday.

Elsewhere, the appropriations committees on both sides of the Hill have another full slate of hearings in preparation for writing the fiscal 2016 spending bills. The outgoing commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Margaret Hamburg, will testify before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.

The House Judiciary Committee starts moving an immigration bill, HR 1147, which would require employers to use the E-Verify system to ensure that job applicants can legally work. Agribusiness groups strongly oppose the legislation unless Congress creates a program to ensure farms and livestock operations have an adequate flow of foreign labor.

House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., told Agri-Pulse that he plans to move a series of enforcement bills first before taking up agricultural guestworker legislation.

There is little chance that immigration legislation will be enacted during this Congress, given the wide gulf between the White House and congressional Republicans on the issue, but farm groups are making their concerns known nevertheless.

“It is not engaging in hyperbole to suggest that mandatory E-Verify without a truly scalable and workable agricultural labor program will result in a man-made disaster in the sector, with lasting economic and food security repercussions,” said Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

“For this reason, virtually every agricultural organization has a policy opposing mandatory E-Verify unless it is packaged with an acceptable agricultural reform,” he said.

As for school nutrition, first lady Michelle Obama last week took a swipe at critics like SNA that are arguing the standards are too difficult for many schools to meet. “And even today, some folks are still arguing that we just can’t afford to serve our kids healthy food, that it’s too expensive,” she said. “And unfortunately, these tactics often work because that’s what gets headlines these days –- conflict, negativity, fear.” 

The House Education and the Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over child nutrition legislation in that chamber, has already started discussions about the issue although no timetable has been set for writing a new bill, said Chairman John Kline, R-Minn.

He made clear that the committee has heard SNA’s concerns about the standards. “We’ve been hearing for some time that schools are frustrated that they don’t have the flexibility,” he told Agri-Pulse.

Appropriators haven’t ruled out getting involved in the issue, which could mean adding a policy rider to the Agriculture appropriations bill to provide some kind of waiver process that the SNA has long sought.

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Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, March 2

All day – School Nutrition Association legislative action conference, JW Marriott.

All day – National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, Omni Shoreham Hotel. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at 9 a.m.

Tuesday, March 3  

All day – School Nutrition Association conference.

All day – National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference.

9 a.m. – USDA releases Food Price Outlook.

9 a.m. – Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on budgets for the departments of Commerce and Transportation, 253 Russell.

10 a.m. – House Judiciary Committee markup of immigration enforcement bills, 2141 Rayburn.

1 p.m. – House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Forest Service, B-308 Rayburn.

1:30 p.m. – House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on world energy market impact, 2123 Rayburn.

2 p.m. – House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on USDA’s marketing and regulatory programs, 2362-A Rayburn.

2 p.m. – House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Agency for International Development, 2359 Rayburn.

2:30 p.m. – Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration enforcement, 226 Dirksen.

Wednesday, March 4

Morning – School Nutrition Association conference.

9:30 a.m. – Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the EPA budget with Administrator Gina McCarthy, 406 Dirksen.

10 a.m. – House Agriculture Appropriations hearing on the Food and Drug Administration, 2362-A Rayburn.

10 a.m. – House Judiciary markup of immigration bills, 2141 Rayburn.

10 a.m. – Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, 124 Dirksen.

10 a.m. – Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on surface transportation reauthorization, 253 Russell.

10:15 a.m. – House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on ensuring a “secure, reliable and modern electricity system,” 2123 Rayburn.

10:30 a.m. – Senate Budget Committee hearing on “wasteful duplication” in the federal government, 608 Dirksen.

2 p.m. – House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, 2172 Rayburn.

Thursday, March 5

8:30 a.m. – USDA releases Weekly Export Sales.

9:15 a.m. – House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. – House Agriculture Appropriations hearing on USDA research programs, 2362-A Rayburn.

12:30 p.m. – National Research Council, public meeting of the Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects, 500 5th St. NW

Friday, March 6

3 p.m. – USDA releases Latest U.S. Agricultural Trade Data and Peanut Prices.


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