WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2015 - Lawmakers are taking it down to the wire this week as they negotiate sweeping deals on spending and tax policy. Federal spending authority runs out Friday but the deadline will almost certainly be extended temporarily to give the talks more time.

House Republican leaders were warning members that votes could be possible through the weekend and into Monday as they sought to wrap up business for the year. 

Biotech labeling is one of the issues that’s still in the mix. Senators have all but given up reaching agreement on legislation that would permanently block states from imposing GMO labeling and set federal standards for disclosure of biotech ingredients. However, there are still hopes for a temporary fix, with the first state labeling law set to take effect in Vermont in July.

One idea that’s been floated is a two-year ban on state labeling laws. “That’s out there, but there are a lot of different things out there,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. It’s too late to get a “long-term solution” to the labeling issue in the year-end spending agreement being negotiated, he said.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Committee, has emerged as one of the key obstacles to a deal on labeling, according to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and he tells Agri-Pulse he won’t agree to preempt state labeling laws unless there is a federal labeling standard enacted.

“I would be very concerned about preempting state laws without establishing a sound federal standard, but I haven’t seen any specific proposal to which to respond, so it’s all rumor at this point,” he said.

Merkley told Senate leaders he objects to even a temporary preemption measure. “Denying Americans the right to know through local legislation, when we have no federal way of providing that ability, is inappropriate,” he said.

Other legislation that could be in trouble is a reauthorization of school nutrition standards. Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said last week that the policy disagreements had largely been ironed out. But Hoeven, who has been pushing to give schools relief on requirements such as whole grains, said objections have been raised on several issues, including from some lawmakers who want “dramatic changes” in meal rules. “I felt like we were pretty well set but things keep moving around,” he said.

One issue sure to be addressed in coming days, either through the omnibus or another must-pass bill, is the country-of-origin labeling law for meat. After the World Trade Organization on Monday authorized $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs against U.S. exports, the only issue left was whether a voluntary COOL program would replace the mandatory labeling law and what the definition of U.S. product would be.

Agriculture also has a lot at stake in a major tax package that congressional leaders have been trying to negotiate. House Democrats have been raising objections to a package that among other things would make permanent the expanded Section 179 expensing allowance that expired last year along with dozens of other tax benefits.

But key lawmakers on Tuesday were sounding more optimistic about the chances for a deal. “We may very well be able to do what would amount to a big bill with some permanency,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  “We’re working behind the scenes to try to get this put together.”

The fallback position is a two-year bill that would revive the expired tax provisions, such as Section 179, and extend them through 2016.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wants to use the bill to overhaul the biodiesel tax credit so it goes to domestic producers rather than fuel blenders. But Grassley knows the change will be difficult to push through if talks on the big tax package fail and Congress reverts to a straight two-year extension. “If you made a little change for biodiesel, you would have 10 other people who would want to make changes to 10 other provisions, and where does that end?” he said.


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