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Ag appropriations, COVID relief could come this week

Legislators look to combine omnibus appropriations package with COVID relief bill ahead of Christmas recess. Measure includes specific aid for agriculture.

The House will be in session from Monday through Thursday this week as hopes remain high for passage of a final omnibus spending bill ahead of the continuing resolution’s Dec. 11 expiration date and possibly additional COVID-19 relief.

On Dec. 1, the Problem Solvers Caucus and a bipartisan group of 25 Democrats and 25 Republican Senators announced a four-month bipartisan, bicameral COVID-19 emergency relief framework including a total of $908 billion in relief, with $560 billion repurposed from the initial COVID package passed in the spring. The bipartisan, bicameral proposal added new life into stalled negotiations on COVID relief.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she expects the omnibus and the coronavirus pandemic bills to be combined. “That would be our hope because that is the vehicle leaving the station,” she says. “So, if there’s a vehicle, and we can add this language once we see the text, that is what we would be doing.”

Pelosi also left open the door that the work could extend beyond the Dec. 11 date if additional time was needed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate appropriations bills and put legislative text to the COVID relief framework released. Pelosi’s spokesman said the Speaker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have a shared interest in completing work on both.

The COVID relief framework includes $26 billion for agriculture, including a $20 billion in additional Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) authority for the secretary of agriculture and $6 billion for additional nutrition needs. It also includes $10 billion for additional broadband funding.

Outgoing House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., says he hopes whatever ends up being directed at the agriculture industry isn’t just giving money away. He says Congress should not allow USDA to “just give out direct payments whether they need it or not” as the current proposal does not have any specifications on the $20 billion and doesn’t offer any support for the ethanol industry.

He called the Senate’s “slushfund” account for USDA a “mistake” and instead suggests focus should be on the meat industry and food supply chain packing plants to ensure they have adequate funds to help keep their employees safe.

The COVID relief framework does include a liability provision that provides a temporary suspension on any liability related lawsuits associated with COVID, explains Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who says this will give states enough time to put in place their own protections.

However, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says the bill could “encourage corporations to avoid implementing the common sense safety standards needed to protect workers and consumers – and make a bad situation worse.”

The Senate Committee on Appropriations released all twelve of its Fiscal Year 2021 funding measures and the FY21 subcommittee allocations on Nov. 10. The agriculture portion includes $23.33 billion in total funding, and specifically $3.3 billion for agricultural research programs, $1.06 billion for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, $1.07 billion for the Food Safety and Inspection Service and $1.434 billion for the Farm Service Agency (an increase of $20 million above FY20 enacted levels.)

The House included passage of its appropriations bill in a four-bill minibus package on July 24, 2020. For FY 2021, total discretionary funding in the House legislation is $23.98 billion, an increase of $487 million above the FY 2020 enacted level. The House legislation includes $1.088 billion for food safety and inspection programs. The legislation provides $1.835 billion for farm programs, which is $30.3 million above the fiscal year 2020 level. The House legislation includes $1.07 billion – $27 million above the fiscal year 2020 enacted level – for APHIS. The House version provides the same level of funds for ag research - $3.3 billion – $92 million above the fiscal year 2020 level. This includes funds for the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Tanner Beymer, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association's director of government affairs & market regulatory policy, says he expects the livestock mandatory reporting to get included in whatever appropriation package moves and extended for another year. LMR expired on Sept. 30, and although the Senate approved a five-year extension, the House had not taken up action. Beymer says it’s unlikely to see a five-year extension in the omnibus.

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