It’s farm bill conference time

 In Politics

With John Lauinger, Catherine Boudreau and Helena Bottemiller Evich

IT’S FARM BILL CONFERENCE TIME: Farm bill conference negotiations are upon us as members of Congress begin to return today from their weeklong Fourth of July recess. First on the list of tasks will be determining which lawmakers make the cut as the committee is formed. It’s likely House and Senate Ag staffers have already begun working behind the scenes to start merging the bills, though House Ag Chairman Mike Conaway joked on the day the House passed its measure that he may be willing to give them the July 4th holiday off.

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A number of difficult decisions loom over conference talks, and none more so than finding a solution to the two bills’ competing approaches to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Senate Ag Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow’s combined efforts to defeat an amendment that would have tightened SNAP work restrictions provided the latest indication that Senate leaders won’t meddle with SNAP.

Conservation challenge: Aside from SNAP, sorting out major disparities between the bills’ conservation titles also stands to be a challenge, as yours truly reports this morning. Each measure would make tweaks to USDA’s three flagship conservation programs in different ways, but the biggest hurdle will be how to address the House’s plan to eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program and fold parts of it it into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

“The discussions with respect to the Senate, and all of those issues, will mean compromise, and no one’s going to get it exactly the way they want it,” Conaway said when asked by reporters if the House bill’s proposed increase to the Conservation Reserve Program’s acreage cap is a must-have for him. “You can’t peg one specific thing you’re going to do or not do because a lot of the things go into the final decision.”

Dollars disparity: The conference committee will also have to play the numbers game to bridge a wide funding gap between the two conservation titles. The House bill seeks to make $800 million in cuts to conservation programs over a decade, according to CBO. Whereas the Senate measure makes no overall cuts to the conservation title, although some programs would see slight reductions as resources are reshuffled around.

HAPPY MONDAY, JULY 9! Welcome to Morning Ag, where your host loved this story about dogs that are trained to sniff out harmful bacteria that can decimate honeybee populations, and a farm bill grant that will be used to expand the canine detection program beyond its Maryland beginnings. Sends news and tips to [email protected] or @liz_crampton. Follow the whole team: @Morning_Ag.

TRUMP’S SCOTUS PICK EXPECTED TODAY: President Donald Trump is planning to make a prime-time address today to unveil his nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement less than two weeks ago. Trump has so far interviewed seven candidates, but the leading contenders are said to be Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Raymond Kethledge and Thomas Hardiman — the runner-up when Trump nominated Justice Neil Gorsuch last year. The decision is coming down to the wire.

“We are close to making a decision,” the president told reporters on Sunday evening while leaving the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, N.J. “It’s, well, let’s just say it’s the four people. Every one you can’t go wrong. I’ll be deciding tonight or tomorrow, sometime by 12 o’clock, and we’re all gonna be meeting at 9 o’clock.”

Where the contenders are now: Kavanaugh has served on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit since 2003 and was appointed by former President George W. Bush. The 43rd president also tapped Kethledge for a judgeship on the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and Hardiman for the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Barrett has served since fall 2017 on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Water wars: Trump’s choice may have to help decide several cases regarding federal water regulations, should they come before the court of last resort. Many MA readers are familiar with the battle over the Obama-era rule that expanded the definition of what constitutes “waters of the U.S.,” which Trump’s EPA is in the process of rescinding and rewriting. Numerous WOTUS-related lawsuits involving states and groups representing the manufacturing, farming and oil sectors are tied up in court, and the repeal fight is expected to eventually head to the Supreme Court.

“The presumption is that these are conservative jurists, so I would think any of the four nominees would have a narrow interpretation of what WOTUS constitute,” said Jessie Richardson, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law and lead land use attorney at the law school’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic.

Richardson noted that disputes between states over the allocation of water are pending before SCOTUS. For example, the court in January heard arguments in a decades long fight between Georgia and Florida, in which Florida contends that homes and businesses in Atlanta, along with farms in south Georgia, consume too much water. As a result, Florida’s environment and fishing industry has been harmed, the state argues.

“I think a new appointment is a wildcard, because the issue doesn’t seem to fall along ideological lines,” Richardson said.

Kavanaugh on COOL: While there’s little, if any, buzz about the top contenders’ records on agricultural issues, Kavanaugh did write a concurring opinion in a case in which U.S. meatpackers argued that the USDA requiring country-of-origin labeling violated the First Amendment. The meat industry lost that case, and Kavanaugh upheld the constitutionality of such labels, arguing that the government has historically had an interest in supporting American manufacturers, farmers and ranchers against foreign competition.

POLITICO’s Christopher Cadelago has more on Trump’s search here.

THE WINDING ROAD TO THE TRADE WAR: Lawmakers, industry groups and corporations spent months and millions of dollars trying to discourage Trump from imposing tariffs on China and igniting a trade war between the world’s two largest economies. But for Trump and those closest to him, it was always going to be this way.

“I always believed he was deadly serious about China from the very beginning,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and outside White House adviser, recalling his time with Trump during the campaign. “I’m not at all surprised that we’ve come to this point. I am a little surprised that China hasn’t been more conciliatory. But I think Trump can’t back down, he just can’t. He has to stand toe to toe with China.”

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