WASHINGTON, June 16, 2016 - Republicans are pressing ahead with election-year fights over the Clean Water Act, the California drought and other environmental issues as lawmakers took to budget negotiations later this year. The Senate Appropriations Committee today will debate an Interior-Environment spending bill that includes a provision blocking the EPA from implementing its “waters of the U.S.” rule should a court stay be lifted. 

The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, advanced its version of the Interior-Environment bill yesterday after voting over Democratic objections to include provisions aimed at proving more irrigation water for California’s Central Valley. The language would roll back some endangered species protections that have restricted water supplies. Similar provisions are included in a spending bill for the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Vilsack taking hands-off approach to GMO labeling talks. It appears that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack won’t be intervening in the Senate’s negotiations over biotech labeling. Vilsack told Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant during an appearance at Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana yesterday that he would “continue to do what is most helpful. Sometimes what’s most helpful is staying out of the way” and letting the senators negotiate and responding to their questions.

Vilsack didn’t provide any clues as to how close a deal might be. But he made clear that the farm groups will have to accept some kind of national labeling standards. The industry can’t take a "position against mandatory labeling,” he said, because “companies have already made the decision” to label their products due to the Vermont law that takes effect July 1.

Industry officials are holding a conference call with reporters today to try to turn up the heat on Senate Agriculture Committee leaders to reach an agreement. 

One of the officials who will be on the call, Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, expressed frustration earlier this week with the ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who talked to co-op officials yesterday, also pointed the finger at Democrats. Moran said they appeared to be trying to run out the clock. Stabenow argues that she’s only one vote. 

Pressure mounts for House vote on catfish. House Republican leaders are under bipartisan pressure to schedule a vote on killing USDA’s catfish inspection program. Some 169 House members have signed a letter to the leadership asking for a vote on a resolution to kill the rule under which the program is operating. The Senate approved the resolution of disapproval May 25.

GOP leaders are getting pressure from the other side of the issue, too. A coalition of food safety and consumer watchdog groups sent a separate letter to the leadership, arguing that catfish inspection is better than it was when the Food and Drug Administration had the others. The groups that signed that letter include Consumers Union and Food and Water Watch.

Whither WOTUS? Looking for a fifth Scotus vote. A lawyer for the foundation that successfully challenged the government’s enforcement of the Clean Water Act says there are likely at least four Supreme Court votes against the WOTUS rule should the case get there. Todd Gaziano of the Pacific Legal Foundation was co-counsel for landowners who recently won the right to challenge wetlands determinations by the Army Corps of Engineers. 

The case didn’t directly involve the WOTUS rule, which is being challenged at the lower court level. But Gaziano says last month’s ruling showed that the four most conservative justices are clearly frustrated with how federal agencies are interpreting the Clean Water Act. “We don’t necessarily know where the fifth vote would come from,” Gaziano said at a forum yesterday sponsored by his group and the Heritage Foundation. 

Deidre Duncan, a lawyer for the coalition of farm and business groups that is fighting the WOTUS rule, says the Supreme Court decision will cause the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to “think twice” about the decisions they make on whether something is a regulated stream or wetland.  

School nutrition directors join fight against nutrition bill. School nutrition directors have been sharp critics of some of the Obama administration’s child nutrition standards. But the School Nutrition Association has now united with supporters of the standards to fight the child nutrition reauthorization bill that Republicans are moving through the House. 

SNA says that a pilot program in the bill that would allow some states to run meal programs on their own would result in funding cuts that schools can’t afford. According to SNA and anti-hunger groups, states would lose at least two different funding streams, a reimbursement for schools that are certified as meeting federal nutrition standards and a subsidy that schools receive for students who pay for their own meals. 

California would lose an estimated $78 million if it participated in the pilot, and Texas would give up $72 million. Georgia would lose another $30 million. 

The pilot program was inserted at the bill because of demands from conservatives who want to get the federal government out of school nutrition. The legislation has no chance in the Senate, and the School Nutrition Association’s opposition could cost it some votes in the House, too. “This is basically an idea that nobody likes,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. 

Eric Branstad to lead Trump’s Iowa campaign. Eric Branstad who ran the ethanol industry’s advocacy effort in Iowa ahead of the presidential caucuses, will be directing Donald Trump’s campaign in Iowa, reports National Review. Branstad, the son of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, told Agri-Pulse in March that Trump was a “great listener” who asked insightful questions about the ethanol business before endorsing the Renewable Fuel Standard. 

He said it. “I think there is a compromise available. Folks just have to be willing to give a little bit.” - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the biotech labeling negotiations. 

Spencer Chase and Bill Tomson contributed to this report. 


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