Washington Insider -- Friday

Immigration Remains a Hot Ag Topic

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

Republicans Block Procedural Vote in Senate on Infrastructure

Senate Republicans blocked Democrats' attempt to start formal debate on a bipartisan infrastructure plan Wednesday, arguing that Democrats are rushing the procedural vote before the final bill has been written.

The Senate voted 49-51, failing to reach the 60 votes needed to proceed.

The move could be only a delay for President Biden's infrastructure plan, as at least 11 Republicans said they would support the vote if it came up again Monday, when an agreement on the final details of the bill is expected.

Talks are expected to continue. Wednesday's vote fell along party lines, though Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D., N.Y., joined Republicans in voting against moving forward due to Senate rules that make it easier for him to call up a repeat vote after voting no.

Democrats are trying to enact the plan in two parts. The bipartisan infrastructure plan, which amounts to $579 billion in new spending and nearly $1.2 trillion overall, would invest in the so-called hard infrastructure projects.

House Approves Legislation Regulating 'Forever Chemicals'

The House on Wednesday approved a bill setting deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to implement drinking water regulations for so-called forever chemicals. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are widely used, man-made compounds that are found in manufacturing and consumer products like Scotchguard, flame-resistant materials, nonstick cooking surfaces and firefighting foam used on military bases since the 1940s.

They have been found in water wells and thousands of water sources across the country. The bill approved Wednesday 241-182 orders the EPA to designate two PFAS compounds as hazardous air and water pollutants and set drinking water regulations for their use within two years of the bill becoming law.

For years the agency has only established a non-enforceable health advisory level on the compounds in drinking water. It also gives the EPA four years to set regulations for the discharge of the chemicals in industrial runoff and wastewater, and five years to set standards for the use of the thousands of other PFAS compounds.

The bill requires cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites and reimburses local water agencies for efforts to reduce the amount of PFAS in drinking water.

Washington Insider: Immigration Remains a Hot Ag Topic

Typically the debate over immigration doesn't always involve agriculture. But the Senate Judiciary Committee this week held a hearing on just that topic -- how immigration issues affect agriculture.

The attention was on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), with the use of H-2A visas one of the key areas for U.S. ag companies when it comes to bringing in immigrant workers.

Under the FWMA, there would be five-year visas to undocumented farm workers who meet specific eligibility criteria. But they would also be provided with a pathway to permanent legal status and that became one of the key issues that Republican lawmakers focused on in the session.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers that they needed to support the FWMA. The bill, he said, marked a "very delicate compromise" which the House approved earlier this year.

Vilsack, a seasoned official in terms of testifying before Congress, turned the questions on lawmakers themselves. That doesn't always happen. But Vilsack pressed Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., on how it could be viewed as amnesty. He specifically noted that he did not see how it could be amnesty "when the bill provides for the payment of a fine of $1,000, I don't quite understand why we're talking about amnesty." Kennedy's simply said, "Because it is amnesty, and I think most Americans see it as amnesty, and I see it as amnesty."

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, likened it to a 1986 immigration reform effort that included an amnesty provision, noting that under that law many agricultural workers that obtained legal status ended up leaving the sector, eventually forcing employers to bring in more illegal immigrants. "The cycle simply began once again," he noted.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said extending citizenship to even one worker under the farmworker bill would result in "a run on the border." Vilsack countered that farmworkers would only qualify for citizenship when they had been in the country for a while.

Graham called the idea of passing the farmworker legislation "ass-backwards," saying that the U.S. needs to be addressed first.

But some of the liveliest activity came when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, held the questioning time for Vilsack. He took issue with Vilsack's assertion that if the economic conditions in the countries where immigrants typically have come were addressed, there would not be the flow of those trying to enter the U.S.

But Cruz was not having it, noting that those were in poverty last year when the immigration rates were low. "Mr. Secretary, if we were having a hearing on the optimum fertilizer for growing corn, I think you might be a very good witness," Cruz said. "And with all due respect your answers on immigration were fertilizer."

And the U.S. agriculture sector is not unified behind the FWMA. The American Farm Bureau Federation opposes the FWMA in part because they say it would make it easier for employees to sue producers. Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall sent a letter to the committee saying, "Congress must recognize the dangers of incomplete, shortsighted agricultural labor reform initiatives" and urging broad-based reform of the H-2A program."

The bottom line from the hearing is what has kept the issue of immigration from being addressed by the U.S. government: There is not a unified view that will gain support from enough lawmakers to make it through Congress.

So we will see. Agriculture and immigrant labor is very linked and this is something that needs to be watched closely as effort continue to try and find that still-elusive ground to get immigration reform through, Washington Insider believes.

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