WASHINGTON, Oct. 18, 2015 - The House begins moving a long-term highway bill this week even as Republicans try to find a new speaker to replace John Boehner.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has scheduled its markup of a surface transportation bill on Thursday. Authorization for federal highway funding is set to expire Oct. 29, although that will almost certainly be extended to give the House and Senate time to negotiate a final bill.

Agriculture interests have been lobbying lawmakers to use the legislation to ease truck weight limits.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are waiting for a final decision from House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan on whether he will seek the speakership. CBS News reported Sunday, citing Ryan confidants, that he is open to seeking the speakership but won’t negotiate terms with the conservative House Freedom Caucus. 

If Ryan ultimately declines, the race appears wide open. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas is among those considering a run, and Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo has also put his name into consideration.

The House GOP turmoil comes as Congress faces looming fights over the debt limit and the fiscal 2016 budget as well as highway funding.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned lawmakers last week that the debt limit would be reached Nov. 3, leaving the government without cash to pay its bills.

The House will debate a Republican bill (HR 692) this week that would ensure payments on the national debt and the Social Security trust fund when the federal debt limit is reached. But Democrats oppose the measure, leaving it with little future beyond the House.

Biotech, foreign subsidies focus of Ag hearings

On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing on biotechnology to try to build the case for legislation that would block states from mandating the labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients.

The committee chairman, Pat Roberts of Kansas, said making the case that GMOs are safe “would naturally lead” to addressing state labeling laws. The first such law is set to take effect next summer in Vermont.

The House Agriculture Committee, meanwhile, holds a hearing Wednesday on foreign agriculture subsidies. The hearing will focus in particular on how China’s agricultural policy has been distorting the cotton market to the detriment of U.S. producers. The meeting follows a June hearing where committee members said it was time for the United States to consider challenging farm policies such as China’s and Brazil’s at the World Trade Organization.

China accounted for 34 percent of the $492 billion in global agricultural subsidies in 2012, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared to 7 percent for the United States.

Boosting truck limits likely a heavy lift for lawmakers

Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., introduced legislation last month that would allow states to decide whether to allow trucks of up to 91,000 pounds, up from the current maximum of 80,000. The bigger trucks would have to have six axles, instead of just five.

The change won’t be included in the draft bill that the committee will consider on Thursday, but Ribble will likely offer it as an amendment during the markup, an aide said.

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The Transportation Department recommended against any changes to truck limits, citing inadequate study data. But an Informa Economics study for the Soy Transportation Coalition found that six-axle, 97,000-pound trucks would be just as safe as five-axle, 80,000-pound semis. In addition, it found that the larger trucks would cut the number of truck trips needed to haul soybeans and soy products by 1.2 million a year, saving 5.5 million gallons of fuel.

A Senate-passed limit doesn’t include any increase in truck limits because of strong opposition from the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Barba Boxer of California.

The ultimate future of the highway bill hangs on whether lawmakers can agree on how to pay for it. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, worries that Congress will be unable to agree on a long-term bill that is fully funded.

“With the lack of overall leadership in the House and the continued lack of guidance regarding funding from the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, it’s hard to imagine a multiyear bill getting passed in the near future that will not require adjustments down the road,,” he said.

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

Monday, Oct. 19

James Beard Foundation Food Conference: Rethinking the Future of Food, New York.

The 11th round of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union opens in Miami. Through Oct. 23.

1 p.m. - Codex Committee on Food Hygiene meeting, USDA Whitten Building.

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

Tuesday, Oct. 20

All day - FDA public meeting on Food Safety Modernization Act preventive control rules, Chicago.

All day - James Beard Foundation conference. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks on “The Future of the Farm.”

10 a.m. - Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing on nominations for Energy and Interior departments, 366 Dirksen.

2:45 p.m. - Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the economic and environmental impacts of the Paris climate negotiations, 419 Dirksen.

Wednesday, Oct. 21

9:30 a.m. - Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on fiscal 2015 apprehensions of illegal immigrants from Central America, 342 Dirksen.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee hearing on foreign farm subsidies, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on biotechnology, 106 Dirksen.

10 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on rural development, 192 Dirksen.

10 a.m. - Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing on EPA’s regulatory impact analyses, 406 Dirksen.

Thursday, Oct. 22

All day - EPA’s agricultural advisory committee meeting, Bloomfield, Colo.

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

10 a.m. - House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the Senate-passed Grassroots Rural and Small Community Water Systems Assistance Act (S 611), 2123 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on EPA’s 2015 ozone standard, 2318 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee markup of surface transportation bill, 2167 Rayburn.

10 a.m. - EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at the Center for American Progress on reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, 1333 H St. NW.

2 p.m. - House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on bill to transfer management of red snapper fisheries from the federal government to the states, 1324 Longworth.

Friday, Oct. 23

9 a.m. - USDA releases monthly Food Price Outlook.


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