Washington Insider -- Friday

USDA Announces $200 Million Ag Trade Promotion Awards

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

Trump Says Comprehensive Agreement Within Reach With China

While the official statement issued by the White House signaled there were still big differences between the U.S. and China, President Donald Trump said, "I think we're going to make a deal with China. But it's going to be a very comprehensive deal. We're going to cover everything, OK?"

In a press briefing with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, who led the talks for China, Trump said China had agreed to buy U.S. soybeans. Liu commented that the purchases would be 5 million metric tons "per day," but the White House later clarified that it was just a total of 5 million metric tons.

The Xinhua News Agency said a statement from the Chinese delegation indicated that the discussions made "important progress" given the current stage of the talks and the two sides had "candid, specific and fruitful" discussions. The news agency also reported that China will "substantially" expand imports of agriculture, energy, industrial products, but the report did not indicate any tonnage or dollar amounts involved.

Trump said the extra buys will include corn and wheat along with other products. Details now remain a key.

USDA Announces $200 Million Ag Trade Promotion Awards

Efforts to help the U.S. agriculture sector hit by negative impacts of tariffs enacted by other countries, primarily China, continue at USDA.

USDA announced it has awarded $200 million to 57 groups via the Agricultural Trade Promotion Program (ATP) in a bid to help the sector "mitigate the effects of unjustified trade retaliation against U.S. farmers and exporters." The effort is aimed at helping the organizations receiving the awards find new markets for a host of U.S. agricultural products.

USDA took applications from organizations Sept. 2 through Nov. 2, and had originally planned on announcing the awards in early January. However, the partial U.S. government shutdown delayed that announcement until Friday.

ATP is part of a $12 billion package the Trump administration announced previously to help the sector cope with impacts of trade tariffs applied to U.S. products by U.S. trading partners. China has been one of the major U.S customers to take such actions and the awards from USDA reflect that -- the American Soybean Association was awarded $21.9 million.

Five other organizations received awards of $10 million or more: U.S. Meat Export Federation -- $17.6 million; U.S. Grains Council -- $13.94 million; Food Export USA Northeast -- $13.89 million; Food Export Association of the Midwest USA -- $13.85 million; and the Southern United States Trade Association -- $12.59 million.

"At USDA, we are always looking to expand existing markets or open new ones, so we are proud to make good on the third leg of the President's promise to America's farmers," USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in announcing the aid. "This infusion will help us develop other markets and move us away from being dependent on one large customer for our agricultural products. This is seed money, leveraged by hundreds of millions of dollars from the private sector that will help to increase our agricultural exports."

Washington Insider: Administration Faces Increasingly Adversarial Congress

President Trump and his administration have a clear reputation of "looking for a fight" but now this policy is facing "congressional members eager to assert themselves on matters of foreign policy and oversight," the Washington Post said this week.

Senior Republicans are warning the president away from a national emergency declaration to build a border wall, the Post report said, and the top Senate leader is "directly rebuking his national security policy in Syria and Afghanistan." Also, Democratic committee chairs are threatening subpoenas for his top officials. Senate Republicans also are sending signals of discontent, challenging the administration on foreign policy and imploring it to stay out, for now, of talks to avert another shutdown next month.

In the House, where Democrats came into power largely on a promise to serve as a check on the president, several Cabinet secretaries have already declined to testify on contentious topics. In response, the Congress seems to be digging in.

For example, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., sent a blistering letter this week to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for not appearing before the committee to discuss the administration's border security policies.

Congressional oversight is just one area where Congress and the President likely will clash frequently in the next two years. One powerful chairman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., has already launched a probe into what he called "grave breaches" in the security-clearance process at the White House and on Trump's transition team, the Post said.

In private, Trump has told aides he wants to take an aggressive posture toward such oversight -- including fighting any effort by Congress to obtain his tax returns all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Post noted that Democrats tried 17 different times to obtain President Trump's tax returns in the past two years, and some believe "they may finally get them," but that effort certainly will be controversial and likely difficult.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans asserted their independence from the president on several fronts this week -- a notable shift from a conference that spent much of the past two months marching in lockstep in the standoff over a border wall that resulted in a 35-day partial government shutdown.

On Wednesday, some Senate GOP leaders rebutted the president's latest criticism of his own intelligence officials, which came in a tweet. "I would prefer the president would stay off Twitter," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the chamber's second-ranking Republican.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., another top Republican, said, "This is an intel community that the president has largely put in place. I have confidence in them. And I think he should, too."

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced this week an amendment to Middle East policy legislation that rebuked the president's decision to pull back troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

In the area of domestic policy, Republican senators are also sending some warning shots in the president's direction, the Post said. Twice in his weekly news conference Sen. McConnell underscored the need to reach an agreement on border security that both averts another shutdown in February and prevents the president from attempting to use a declaration of a national emergency -- a policy Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a top McConnell confidant, said he is opposed to in part because of the precedent it would set.

Other Republican senators also are urging the president to keep his distance from the 17-member Conference committee tasked with coming up with a border security deal. Republicans on the bipartisan committee were slated to go to the White House later this week for discussions on averting a shutdown, although that meeting appears to have been called off.

There could be further scrutiny from the GOP-led Senate in the coming weeks and months as they take up confirmations for key Cabinet posts. One particular nominee who is likely to undergo rigorous questioning from Republicans is whoever is selected to replace former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who left the administration over disagreements with the president on troop withdrawals and other policy matters and alarmed many GOP senators.

"Getting someone through the confirmation process would be more challenging now," a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee told the paper regarding the confirmation of Mattis' successor. "They're going to ask questions, and they're going to want good answers about independence and about whether or not they feel comfortable in sharing good information with the president and how they would respond."

There are certainly growing areas of wide disagreement which could spark intense -- and important -- fights, disputes producers should watch closely as they emerge, Washington Insider believes.

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