WASHINGTON, April 19, 2015 – A deal between key lawmakers to fast-track new trade agreements begins to move through Congress this week, increasing pressure on President Obama to win over reluctant Democrats.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on a Trade Promotion Authority bill that would ensure Congress can’t amend new trade agreements, only approve or reject them.

The TPA bill is to move in tandem with a second measure renewing Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs for workers, businesses and farmers harmed by imports. TAA was a priority for the Finance Committee’s ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, who also won new TPA provisions that include public disclosure requirements for trade deals and set up a new method for lawmakers to strip an agreement of the fast-track process.

The administration would no doubt like to have the TPA bill out of committee and headed to the Senate floor when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Washington for meetings with President Obama and delivery of an April 29 speech to a joint session of Congress.

Japan is believed to be waiting for assurance that the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement will get fast-tracked through Congress before making critical concessions on its barriers to U.S. agricultural commodities and autos.

Getting TPA through the Senate will be difficult enough, but the margin in the House will likely be razor thin despite the concessions Wyden got.

“It’s going to be tough,” especially in the House, the Senate Democratic whip, Richard Durbin, told Agri-Pulse in an OpenMic interview.

Durbin has estimated that only one-quarter of Democrats in the Senate will support TPA, and there are reports that fewer than 20 House Democrats will vote for it. “The bottom line is if there is just an up-or-down yes or no vote, many members of Congress, myself included, will feel that really isn’t a fair process,” he said.

Labor unions and other anti-TPA groups plan a rally Monday against the legislation. Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, initially resisted having another hearing on the legislation but relented and set a hearing Tuesday that will allow AFL-CIO Richard Trumka to testify against the measure. Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will be the only other witness.

Attack on WOTUS bill takes another step

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to meet Wednesday to mark up its fiscal 2016 Energy and Water bill, which includes a provision to block the Obama administration from enforcing a rule re-defining what streams, ditches, ponds and wetlands can be regulated under the Clean Water Act as “waters of the United States” (WOTUS).

The policy rider is part of a two-prong strategy congressional Republicans are using to address theWOTUS rule, which is now under final review at the Office of Management and Budget.

Last week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a separate bill (HR 1732) that would force the administration to withdraw the rule, but the measure drew only two Democratic votes and has little chance of becoming law.

Senate panel looks into Cuba trade prospects

The Senate Agriculture Committee holds a hearing Tuesday on the prospects for increased trade with Cuba as the administration attempts to normalize diplomatic relations and easethe half-century-old embargo. Michael Scuse, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for farm and foreign agriculture services, will testify at the hearing along with officials from the Treasury and Commerce agencies that administer the embargo.

Cuban purchases of U.S. food and agricultural products have been on the decline for years and totaled just $38 million for January and February, down from $78.5 million during the first two months of 2014, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

Texas A&M University economist C. Parr Rosson, who also will testify at the hearing, said the Cuban government once learned that it can’t use purchases of U.S. farm commodities to win American political support and in the meantime has found other suppliers of commodities such as wheat, rice and beef.

“Part of this is political on the part of the Cuban government and part of it is a risk management tool to diversify away from the United States,” he said.

Rosson, who has assisted Texas companies in opening trade with Cuba, said he’s optimistic that exports will turn around. But he said that significant increases will depend on, among other factors,improvements in the economy and the island’s infrastructure. A lack of reliable cold storage, for example, makes it difficult to sell frozen and chilled products to Cuba.

Justices consider challenge to marketing order

The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments Wednesday morning in a longstanding dispute over the federal marketing order system used to control supplies of many fruits and vegetables. The system requires excess commodities to be steered into “reserve pools.”

California raisin producer Marvin Horne, who also packs and stores raisins, argues that he should be exempt from the reserve-pool requirement if he packs and stores his own raisins, an assertion USDA disputes.The justices are being asked to decided whether USDA must pay “just compensation” for the taking of Horne’s raisins.

This is the second time in two years that the court has gotten involved in the dispute. In 2013, the justices decided unanimously that federal courts had to hear the Hornes claim that the reserve requirement amounted to an unconstitutional “taking” of private property. 

The Ninth U.S. Circuit of Appeals, which had originally ruled that the courts lacked jurisdiction to hear the takings claim in 2014 denied Horne’s claim that the reserve requirement was unconstitutional, sending the case back to the high court.

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

Monday, April 20

All day – Food and Drug Law Institute annual conference, Grand Hyatt.

4 p.m. – USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.

Tuesday, April 21

All day – National Food Policy Conference, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America, Capital Hilton Hotel. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at 3:15 p.m.

All day – FDLI conference.

10 a.m. – Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on agricultural trade with Cuba, 328A Russell.

10 a.m. – Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, 366 Dirksen.

10 a.m. – Senate Finance Committee hearing on trade policy, 215 Dirksen.

3:10 p.m. – Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Robert Holleyman speaks to the American Association of Port Authorities spring conference, Mayflower Renaissance.

Wednesday, April 22

Morning – CFA’s National Food Policy Conference.

U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Horne vs. U.S. Department of Agriculture.

10 a.m. – House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on reauthorization of the U.S. Grain Standards Act, 1300 Longworth.

1:30 p.m. – House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on reauthorization of the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act, 1300 Longworth.

3 p.m. – House Ways and Means Committee hearing on trade policy, 1100 Longworth.

Thursday, April 23

All day - FDA public meeting on implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, Washington Marriott at Metro Center.

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

9 a.m. – House Natural Resources Committee hearing on wildfire management, 1324 Longworth.

4 p.m. – U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman speaks at The Atlantic Economy Summit, Capital Hilton.

Friday, April 24

Morning - FDA FSMA public meeting.

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


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