Senate panel advances ag bill rejecting Trump cuts

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Senate Appropriations subcommittee today approved a fiscal 2018 spending bill for agriculture that rejects many of the cuts proposed by the Trump administration and would provide about $500 million more in discretionary spending than a House proposal.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), chairman of the subcommittee, said the $145.4 billion measure would provide funding for critical programs “despite a minor funding reduction” of $7.9 billion from this year.

Discretionary funding would total $20.5 billion, compared with $20 billion in the version approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee. The mandatory portion is $124.9 billion.

The Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies panel approved the bill on a voice vote, with no objections.

Amendments will wait until the full Appropriations Committee takes up the measure Thursday, including an expected effort to thwart Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s elimination of the undersecretary position for rural development, Hoeven said.

Hoeven said many members of the subcommittee believe strongly that rural development programs require an official with the stature of a Senate-confirmed undersecretary, rather than an assistant to the secretary who serves at Perdue’s pleasure.

Perdue has already filled the assistant’s position with Anne Hazlett, a former Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee chief of staff.

The measure approved by the subcommittee would boost funding for the Natural Resources Conservation Service to $874.1 million, or $9.6 million more than this year and $108.1 million more than President Trump requested. The House version calls for $858 million for the NRCS.

Research programs win out in the Senate measure, which rejects an administration proposal to close 17 Department of Agriculture research centers and would hold funding steady at $375 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, USDA’s main competitive research grant program.

Lawmakers also rejected the Trump administration’s moves to pare back USDA county-level offices, including a provision barring closure of Farm Service Agency offices, Hoeven said.

And the Rural Energy for America Program, targeted for a steep reduction in the House version, would remain at current funding, a committee aide told reporters.

Other amendments are possible in the full committee, including from the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who said he would offer a proposal to boost funding to levels that could be reached if budget caps were not in place.

As is Senate custom, the committee released a summary of the bill but not full details. A complete text will be released once the bill is approved by the full committee, a spokesman said.

The House and Senate spending bills’ ultimate fate remains unclear, and Hoeven said “reality” suggests final spending levels will be determined by a continuing resolution or an omnibus spending bill covering most if not all federal agencies.

Before that happens, the House may consider its bill on the floor, and Hoeven said he hopes the agriculture bill will reach the Senate floor on its own.