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Two Senators, Two Parties, One River, Similar Message

Agricultural issues sprinkle talking points of both McConnell and Donnelly

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Sen. Joe Donnelly, sounded similar messages on agriculture policy Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Sen. Joe Donnelly, sounded similar messages on agriculture policy Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

BOONVILLE, Ind. — On opposite sides of the Ohio River on Thursday, a Republican leader under attack from President Donald Trump and a Democratic senator facing a potentially difficult re-election bid sounded a similar, agriculture-heavy message to core constituencies.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellspeaking at a farm bureau breakfast in his home state of Kentucky — trumpeted the future abolishment of an Obama-era rule despised by many in the industry and provided assurances that farmers would be taken care of in an upcoming reauthorization of legislation that governs many agriculture programs.

“We are going to do everything we can to produce the kind of farm bill that makes it possible for you folks to do what you do really, really well,” he said in Lousiville, Kentucky.

Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a Democrat who this week kicked off his re-election campaign, struck a similar chord at an event just hours later.

“What I want to do is make sure that it reflects what you want in a farm bill,” he said at the small gathering of local farmers in Vincennes, Indiana.

Donnelly stressed the importance of crop insurance in the pending renewal of the farm bill, which protects farmers in the event of a loss of yield. McConnell hinted at the same.

“We need to have a sensible safety net for American agriculture. You’re in a challenging business, you can’t control the weather, and it’s in lots of ways a high-risk undertaking,” he said.

The current farm bill, and its policies for farming, agricultural conservation, research, federal crop insurance and nutrition programs, expires at the end of September 2018.

It is possible the House and Senate Agriculture panels could produce draft legislation this fall or early 2018, something McConnell alluded to in his speech. 

Both McConnell and Donnelly took jabs at the so-called Waters of the United States rule, commonly referred to as WOTUS, but in much different ways.

McConnell said the rule was on its “way to the ash heap of history,” while Donnelly called for a more ground-up approach to the regulation that would put local farmers more in charge.

“What I kept telling EPA on WOTUS is, look, we can hit targets; let us use our ideas on how to do it. We can figure this out better. You can’t figure it out as well sitting there as we can right here,” he said.

Congressional Republicans have long lamented WOTUS, which was finalized by former President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency in 2015. The rulemaking expands jurisdiction for protecting streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act.

Opponents claim it is a poster child of Obama’s executive overreach.

Even supporters of the rule recognize the opposition may outnumber them.

“I think there is a lot of hype and fear-mongering, distrust with the EPA that wasn’t warranted,” Ray Chattinn, a 66-year old retired farmer who lives in Indiana’s Knox County, said at the event in Vincennes. “I’m on the other side of the fence from probably everybody in this room.”

Trump has vowed a swift repeal of the rule, directing the EPA to reconsider it with a more limited scope in a February executive order. Current agency administrator Scott Pruitt told appropriators earlier this summer that he anticipates the effort to wrap up by the end of the year or the first quarter of next year. The effort appears to be on schedule.

The EPA took the first official step to repeal the regulation by submitting a proposed rule at the end of June, kicking off the public comment period.

Jeremy Dillon and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.

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