Washington Insider -- Tuesday

Toward Narrower Appropriation Bills, Perhaps

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

Cuba Bought U.S. Soyoil As South American Supplies Tighten

Cuba made its first U.S. soyoil purchase in more than five years this month, the latest sign that drought and heavy rains in South America have tightened supplies and disrupted longstanding trade patterns.

The U.S. sold 15,200 metric tons of soyoil to the Caribbean island the week ended June 2, according to USDA data. That broke down as 7,600 metric tons each for 2015-16 and 2016-17.

While the purchases are not large in terms of total US soyoil exports, it was the biggest to Cuba since 2010 and the first since 2011.

The sales also put Cuba as the lead buyer of US soyoil for the week.

However, getting broader trade with Cuba freed up is still a struggle. The main issue preventing wider sales of U.S. ag products to Cuba remains the issue of financing as currently, sales must take place on a cash basis. Odds remain low so far that the financing issue will be addressed soon.

GI Protections Not 'Completely Contradictory' to US Approach: French Official

Different approaches by the U.S. and European Union (EU) for protecting agricultural products are being taken, but they are not necessarily contradictory, French Minister of State for Foreign Trade Matthias Fekl, said June 10 at the European Union Institute in Washington.

"What we think is that it's possible to have both protection by geographical indication (GI) and by trademark," Fekl said, adding that the different U.S. and EU approaches aren't "necessarily completely contradictory." The ongoing disagreement between U.S. and EU trade negotiators over the GI system used by the EU have weighed on Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks.

The EU is pushing to have the U.S. accept its current GI system. Under the EU system, American producers could be prohibited from marketing foods using EU-protected names such as "parmesan" cheese, as they aren't produced in the EU-specified geographic area that merits the "parmesan" designation.

Fekl recently visited Napa Valley, California, to meet with U.S. vintners and to discuss GI and get their perspective on the matter. He characterized the visit as productive, noting that the U.S. vintners agreed that location matters when marketing their products.

Trade negotiations should take a holistic approach with regard to environmental and climate change issues, Fekl said. He added that it makes "no sense" to undertake trade negotiations that don't "fully take into consideration" the Paris climate agreement. That particular issue emerged front and center following the release of confidential TTIP negotiation documents by Greenpeace, who accused the negotiators of not making compliance with the climate deal a key aspect of TTIP.

Washington Insider: Toward Narrower Appropriation Bills, Perhaps

The Hill is reporting this week that the Senate Republican Leadership is privately urging GOP colleagues to avoid distracting political fights. This is big news, The Hill says, because it could mean "a surprising ceasefire on labor and health issues, two of the bloodiest battlegrounds in Congress."

For the first time in seven years, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week passed a bipartisan bill funding the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. It's the largest spending bill after the one for the Defense Department and has been "a perennial source of partisan strife," according to The Hill.

The drama-free passage was an important victory for McConnell, who has staked the Senate Republican majority on the argument that Republicans know how to govern. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told The Hill that, "Behind the closed doors of the conference, he emphasizes over and over again that he wants to keep the extraneous things off and do what people expect us to do."

The full Senate is now poised to act on the Labor HHS bill, which hasn't passed the chamber as a stand-alone measure since 2007—and, which hasn't come close to passing the Senate in recent years because it routinely was bogged down in fights over policy riders affecting Affordable Care and labor issues.

In 2013, the government shut down for 16 days because Republicans, led by freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted on language that would have blocked the implementation of the ACA. Then, the government almost shut down again in 2015 because of a fight over funding Planned Parenthood.

This time, McConnell has worked closely with Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to keep riders from sinking spending bills before they get to the floor. "There's a commitment between Leader McConnell and Chairman Cochran to move bills and get them to the floor. The leadership has been very helpful with floor time," a Senate GOP aide told The Hill.

This year's Labor-HHS bill does include a policy rider prohibiting the administration from using its appropriated funds to pay for ACA's risk corridor program, which reimburses insurances companies that suffer higher costs because of the healthcare law and it also includes language that eliminates funding for the Independent Payment Advisory Board which was included in the ACA to reduce the growth of Medicare.

But both of those policy riders were part of last year's omnibus spending deal and don't represent new battles, The Hill says. However, the current bill avoids add-ons to defund Planned Parenthood or reverse the new federal rules mandating overtime pay for some salaried workers. It also doesn't take on new regulations that require retirement advisers to put their clients' financial interests ahead of their own.

McConnell wants to avoid paralyzing political fights because Republicans have to defend Senate seats in states President Obama won in 2008 and 2012, The Hill says. Appealing to moderate Democrats and independents could help endangered Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark Kirk of Illinois win reelection.

However, the early winner from this year's deal on labor and health spending may be Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of McConnell's leadership team who faces a tough reelection race in Missouri. Blunt, the chairman of the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, teamed up with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat, to produce a bill without new controversial riders and he worked with Murray last month to craft a compromise amendment that allocated $1.1 billion in emergency funds to combat the Zika virus.

Blunt noted the legislation includes the riders Obama agreed to as part of last year's omnibus deal. "We just didn't put any new riders in. It wasn't easy but there's real sense for how important it is for these debates to happen on the Senate floor rather than in committee," Blunt said.

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has so far taken a different approach in the House, giving his members free rein to add various policy riders in committee--but that approach is proving unworkable. It suffered an embarrassing setback last month when a bill funding energy and water programs failed because Democrats united against it, citing policy riders affecting the environment and firearms regulations that were added at the committee level, according to The Hill.

Now, it seems that House Republican leaders are moving to follow McConnell's "no drama" approach. They announced Wednesday they will start restricting politically charged amendments on spending bills.

Well, it is a long time until October when the new budget is required by the Constitution—and, in this supercharged political environment it is difficult to believe that budget bills "free of drama" will emerge across the board. It does seem to suggest that the Congress is increasingly convinced that creating a workable budget may be more important than a brief victory with some short-term talking points, even when political lives are on the line, Washington Insider believes.

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