Senate Sparring Over Ag Aid

Floor Debate Heated as Talks Continue on Stimulus Package

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
The U.S. Senate package has provisions that would help agriculture by providing more funding to USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. Senate leaders and the Trump administration continued negotiating late into Monday. (DTN file photo by Nick Scalise)

WASHINGTON, (DTN) -- Amid the frustrations in the U.S. Senate on Monday, a few senators took to the Senate floor to raise their concerns about the challenges facing farmers.

Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., organized a colloquy on farm provisions in the Senate version of the phase-three coronavirus bill, but Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., explained why Democrats are objecting to the agriculture and nutrition provisions in the bill.

"Our farmers and ranchers are working overtime to deliver food to our grocery shelves across this great country," Hoeven said. "At the same time, they're facing real challenges. As just one example, the cattle industry has lost between $7 billion and $9 billion over the past two months. That's just one sector of the agriculture economy. Congress needs to act and act now to ensure that farmers, ranchers and rural America receive the relief they desperately need."

Early Tuesday, 48 agricultural groups wrote House and Senate leaders calling on Congress to raise USDA's borrowing limit under the Commodity Credit Corp., which is the key provision for agriculture in the Senate bill.

"Farmers, ranchers and the supply chain that support them will not let Americans down during this unprecedented crisis and they are asking the same of you," the letter states to lawmakers.

The letter added, "Congress must ensure the CCC has ample authority and funding to help farmers and ranchers survive this emergency. The inclusion of these provisions would ensure the Secretary of Agriculture has the tools needed to meet this crisis head-on for all of agriculture."

Arguments and speeches on the Senate floor became testy Monday after a procedural vote failed 49-46, needing 60 votes to pass. Republican leadership blamed Democrats for holding up the bill while Democrats countered the bill includes hundreds of billions in aid to businesses with few accountability measures. Talks also centered on more aid to communities and medical providers as well.

Stress in the Senate also rose as one of their own, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., announced Sunday he had tested positive for COVID-19 while four other Republican senators were quarantined. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also disclosed her husband is infected, the Washington Post reported.

Negotiations on the Senate bill went into the evening as the Washington Post and others reported Senate leaders and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were close to a deal on the roughly $2 trillion stimulus bill. The Senate is scheduled to return to debate on the legislation Tuesday, but no vote is set at this point.

The Senate bill includes a provision to increase funding for the Agriculture Department's Commodity Credit Corporation, a line of credit at the Treasury, which can be used to help farmers with their problems. Under current law, that spending is limited to $30 billion per fiscal year. The coronavirus bill replenishes the CCC for the current year and provides an additional $20 billion. It would also allow the CCC to make payments to livestock producers who have been hit by low prices.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said that Democrats initially said they wanted to make sure that all the money was not spent on livestock, and that the bill had been changed so that it would also be spent on crops. Moran said that the Democrats later said they are opposed to the CCC provision being included in the bill and removed themselves from a letter that Hoeven was organizing for farm groups to express their support for the provision.

Stabenow then took to the floor and said that Democrats have a joint interest with the Republicans supporting farmers. But Stabenow, who has questioned the formula that the Agriculture Department used to provide trade aid to crop farmers, noted that her Michigan cherry farmers have been faced with imports from Turkey and gotten no assistance under trade aid.

She also said that Democrats are determined that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will receive an increase in benefits.

"We can't leave out people who are struggling to eat," Stabenow said, noting that previous crisis legislation has included an increase in SNAP benefits.

Stabenow also stressed that she and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., had worked well together on the last two farm bills and said, "We are certainly willing to work with you."

Near the end of the colloquy, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he was "encouraged" that Stabenow wants to work with the Republicans, but the bottom has fallen out of the cattle market and "unfortunately, we don't have time to waste. We just don't have time to waste. This isn't something that can be put off to another day."

Once a stimulus bill passes the Senate, it also must clear the House where Democrats on Monday released their own $2.5 trillion package. The House is out of session and would need to call members back to vote on a stimulus bill unless it is passed by unanimous consent. The House bill includes a detailed summary, showing it would include funds for farm loan servicing, an increase in loan authority for rural business loans, special assistance to dairy farmers and purchases of perishable products. It also includes more money for long-distance learning and telehealth. The summary does not mention more funding for the Commodity Credit Corporation.

Also on Monday, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., and three other House members asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to provide assistance to specialty crop producers amid the coronavirus crisis.

"Specifically, we request regulatory flexibility to implement the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act under the circumstances of this emergency; a commitment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables for federal nutrition programs; and direct support to specialty crop producers whose customers are now unable to fulfill their previous purchase commitments due to the current crisis," wrote Panetta and Reps. Jim Costa, D-Calif., Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Fred Upton, R-Mich.

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@nationaljournal.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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Jerry Hagstrom