Washington Insider -- Tuesday

Keeping the Government Open

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Perspective: Sonny Perdue, New USDA Secretary

Late-comer, popular Cabinet choice has some catching up to do

Sonny Perdue was finally confirmed to head USDA in a Monday Senate vote of 87 to 11.

Late is the word when it comes to the former Georgia governor. President Donald Trump announced his selection the day before the president’s Inauguration Day. Then it took a while to get Perdue’s paperwork in and ethics matters cleared to get a vote via the Senate Agriculture panel. Then lawmakers departed for their two-week Easter/Passover recess.

Will the tardy approval hurt Perdue? It could, but it depends how fast he can catch up with personnel and other matters. Building rapport with other Cabinet members is key, as Perdue may need their help in future policy and budget matters. With a gregarious personality, he has won friends among White House officials and staffers, including the agriculture person in the White House, advisor Ray Starling. That will help.

First big issue for Perdue is a dairy trade spat with Canada. The White House dispatched Perdue late this week to Wisconsin to discuss the thorny issue with dairy producers and report back to Trump.

Other trade policy issues include working with the US Trade Representative’s office on new bilateral accords and making sure countries are not using measures to thwart US exports. Tasks also include eventually convincing a wary Congress to approve coming new agreements and a revised NAFTA with Mexico & Canada.

Stakeholders Shift Focus to USTR

Hope among trade watchers are rising that the Senate will move swiftly to confirm Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in the wake of confirming Sonny Perdue as USDA Secretary.

The USTR nominee's fate depends on whether the Senate Finance Committee can agree to waive a lobbying requirement for him and support the Democrats’ priority for miners’ health and pension benefits. Supporters are hopeful a deal can be struck soon, but say nothing is yet settled.

Talks continue on granting the waiver as part of a plan that includes shoring up miners’ health and pension benefits, which Democrats are using as a bargaining chip in the omnibus negotiations and for supporting the USTR nominee, according to congressional sources. The idea is to include the waiver and miners’ benefit fix in the upcoming omnibus spending bill.

Washington Insider: Keeping the Government Open

There’s a lot of whistling past a number of graveyards in Washington these days. Now, after earlier hints that the White House might temporarily defer its push for its spending priorities as the budget clock winds down now. However, the Washington Post is now reporting that the President no longer has any interest in that approach. Over the weekend, he pushed Republicans to “use the looming threat of a government shutdown to win funding for a border wall.”

The Post says Trump’s push for action on his pledge to build he wall appears to be part of a mounting high-tension effort to “kick start” the President’s agenda. It follows weeks of frustration within the White House over inaction and stalemates over big-ticket items such as health care and tax cuts.

So, the President is insisting on current funding for his wall to be included in a spending measure that would keep the government open past April 28.

Trump’s push for fast action on his pledge to build the wall appears to be part of a mounting and high tension inside the administration “to kick-start the President’s agenda, even if it risks dire political consequences” the Post says. It follows weeks of frustration within the White House over inaction and stalemates on Capitol Hill over big-ticket items such as health care and tax cuts.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said in an interview Sunday with The Washington Post that the President and his advisers remain “strong” in their commitment to secure funding for border security and a wall.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D., Calif., countered Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press”. “Building a wall is not answer. Not here or any place.”

However, the timing to settle this fight is incredibly tight—there are only three days when both chambers will be in session. Negotiators worked throughout the break, but thus far a deal has not been stuck.

The wall, which experts say would cost $21.6 billion and take 31/2 years to construct, has emerged as a crucial sticking point for the White House, with the President insisting privately and publicly that progress toward funding and eventual construction must be showcased this week.

“Congress is right to be nervous, but that’s Trump’s style to be aggressive, ambitious, right out of ‘The Art of the Deal’ said William J. Bennett, a conservative commentator and close friend of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “Everybody seems to be getting used to that and how Trump doesn’t want the half loaf but the whole loaf.”

In a tweet Sunday, Trump asserted that the border will stop drugs and gang activity. He added that he would continue to ask Mexico to pay for the project, another bold proclamation he made during the campaign. Meanwhile, he said, he will press Congress for funding “so we can get started early” on the “badly needed border wall.”

It remained unclear Sunday whether moderates within the GOP could persuade the White House to avoid a shutdown. Democrats have insisted that they will not vote for any spending bill that gives the White House money or flexibility to begin construction of a border barrier. They believe that the GOP will have to either abandon Trump’ demand or assume political responsibility if a shutdown occurs.

The President’s tweets did little to assuage concerns that While House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney suggested that Trump might not sign a spending bill that does not meet his demands. “Will he sign a government funding bill that does not include funding for the border wall? Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday” asked Mulvaney.

“We don’t know yet,” Mulvaney responded.

Democrats believe that voters will blame Trump for a shutdown, particularly if congressional leaders omit wall funding from a spending deal. Democrats and GOP leaders appeared to be nearing a spending agreement last week before Trump ramped up his demands.

Aides had hailed the recent budget talks as one of the only active discussion in which Democrats and Republican maintained common ground. One clear area of agreement was not to include border funding in the stopgap budget. And, it was agreed that the wall itself should be debated separately, after the government is kept open.

Mulvaney’s hard line stance is also at odds with a White House faction convinced that a government shutdown would be cataclysmic for an administration already struggling to prove its ability to govern, according to GOP aides in the White House and Congress who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

So, we will see. It would seem to be important to the administration to work out a deal and avoid a shutdown, especially since its high priority spending can be provided later. Still, there is a lot of political capital involved here, and it is especially difficult to know how the administration will react. This is fight with high stakes for producers, and one that should be watched carefully as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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