WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2016 - Congressional Republicans are trying this week to push a water resources authorization bill across the finish line along with a stopgap spending bill to keep the government running into next spring. GOP leaders want to wrap up the 114th Congress by this weekend.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., expressed optimism that the Senate would pass the water bill by Friday at the latest. “I feel confident that” the dispute over the drought provisions is “not going to keep this from becoming reality,” he said.
But the retiring ranking member of the committee, Barbara Boxer of California, was working to round up Democratic support to sustain a filibuster of the legislation if the drought provisions aren’t dropped.
The water measure provoked a rare public split between Boxer and her home-state Democratic colleague, Dianne Feinstein, who was arguing forcefully to keep the provisions in the bill.
The provisions put a number of colleagues in a bind, including Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. She said she thought the bill was “highly unlikely” to pass the Senate, although she supports it because it would authorize aid to Flint, Michigan, to assist with its drinking water problems. “I think it’s terrible that they’re using the people of Flint as a pawn,” she said.
The bill would allow for diversion of more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Central Valley Project for up to five years. Water releases to the Central Valley have been limited because of endangered species protections for the salmon and Delta smelt.
Lawmakers are expected to pass by Friday a new continuing resolution that will fund the government until April 28, when the new Congress is expected to have ready a government-wide spending bill for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The CR includes a provision that would ensure that USDA’s Farm Service Agency has sufficient money to cover its demand for direct and guaranteed loans. The also includes similar language to cover rural housing and telecommunications loans.
“Demand for operating loans is always highest in the winter and early spring, so this measure will maximize the agency's ability to meet farmer demand for credit during these difficult times for the farm economy,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
NSAC and other farm and banking groups wrote appropriators on Monday appealing for the FSA provision in the new CR. “When you factor in the existing loan backlog and the higher than previously anticipated demand on FSA loan programs due to lower commodity prices, FSA will likely run out of money during the CR period, just when farmers need the program the most,” the groups wrote.
FSA was short $137 million in loan funding for fiscal 2016, creating a backlog that carried into the current fiscal year. The shortfall includes $44 million for direct and $93 million for guaranteed loans, the groups said.
There were still negotiations going on an energy bill, but House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said that chances for a deal this week appeared slim.
Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., had been trying to pass a child nutrition reauthorization bill in the lame duck, but he announced on Tuesday that he was giving up, citing opposition from Democrats and the House. His committee approved a bipartisan bill in January to replace the expired Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act but the committee measure never got a vote on the floor. The bill would have reauthorized nutrition programs for five years and eased rules on sodium and on whole grains.
“I’m proud of the common-sense reforms and the bipartisan strides we have made in the majority of the programs. However, we are nearing the end of this legislative calendar, and we have not been able to overcome minority objections and additionally those in the House,” Roberts said.
He said he’ll try again next year, but his committee was already going to have a heavy workload considering President-elect Donald Trump’s USDA nominees and starting on the next farm bill.
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