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Corker Adds Wrinkle to Farm Bill as He Pushes Back on Trump’s Tariffs

Agriculture is the ‘No. 1 target’ of foreign retaliation, GOP senator says

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., talks with reporters in the Capitol's Senate subway before the Senate Policy luncheons on June 19, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., talks with reporters in the Capitol's Senate subway before the Senate Policy luncheons on June 19, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate could begin action Wednesday on dozens of farm bill amendments, including Sen. Bob Corker’s proposal for congressional approval of import tariffs and Sen. John Kennedy’s effort to extend the expiring National Flood Insurance Program.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow said Tuesday they were starting to sort through amendments to the House-passed farm bill to determine how to address them. The Senate voted to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the farm bill Monday night. The House bill is intended to be the legislative vehicle for the Senate version, expected to be offered by Roberts as a substitute amendment Wednesday.

Corker’s proposal is relevant to agriculture because it “has been the No. 1 target when the administration imposes a tariff, why there is retaliation,” Roberts said. “Agriculture is the target, and you lose markets.”

But the amendment is problematic, the Kansas Republican said. He and Stabenow said Corker’s high-profile and contentious tariff proposal could complicate their plans for a trouble-free path to passing their farm bill.

Corker is trying to find a legislative home for his proposal that would check the Trump administration’s tariffs actions based on national security concerns. He was unable to get a vote on his amendment to the defense authorization bill last week. The Senate passed the bill June 18.

Roberts said a proposal by Sen. John Thune, a Senate Agriculture Committee member, might have better luck. The South Dakota Republican’s amendment would allow limited livestock grazing and the harvesting of hay on land enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, which generally removes land from agricultural use. The Thune amendment will be the first Republican amendment to be offered, Roberts said.

Watch: Corker Chastises Fellow Republicans for Blocking His Tariff Amendment

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Another committee member, Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, is pressing for consideration of his proposal to tighten the definition of who can qualify for farm subsidies to reduce the likelihood that investors or wealthy landowners who have no active role in running a farm receive federal payments.

“I think we can take care of Sen. Grassley’s concerns. We want to make sure that Sen. Grassley’s concerns are met,” Roberts said.

But a proposal by Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois that would require means testing to determine crop insurance eligibility is misguided, Roberts said. Durbin’s proposal would require individual farmers with adjusted gross incomes of $700,00 or above to pay about 50 percent of their crop insurance premiums. The government on average pays 62 percent of a farmer’s premium costs.

“We’ll have a good discussion,” Roberts said, adding that he is particularly wary of proposals to change the way crop insurance functions.

Tariffs and flood insurance

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Kennedy said the farm bill represented a chance to keep the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program operating through hurricane season, which ends Nov. 1. Kennedy said the farm bill could be a vehicle for a six-month extension of the federal program that is scheduled to expire July 31.

When the program lapsed four times in 2010 for 53 days, thousands of home sales were delayed because buyers could not get insurance for properties in flood-prone areas, Kennedy said. The delays affected local economies and the mortgage industry, he said.

The fate of Kennedy and Corker’s amendments will be determined later this week.

Corker’s proposal has divided Senate Republicans, with senior lawmakers arguing that Congress should not second-guess President Donald Trump’s tariff decisions. Using Section 232 under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, Trump imposed global 25 percent steel and 10 percent aluminum tariffs on foreign-made products on national security grounds. The administration negotiated steel quotas limiting imports from Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Korea.

Corker and a core of bipartisan supporters question the national security justification for the tariffs that have led to retaliatory actions from the European Union and Mexico. Canada is scheduled to impose its set of retaliatory tariffs July 1.

On Tuesday, 270 business groups and trade associations sent a letter to Senate offices urging support for Corker’s tariff legislation, which is the basis for his farm bill amendment. The groups said the steel and aluminum tariffs worried them, and that the auto industry and related businesses “would be profoundly harmed” if the president makes good on a threat to impose a 25 percent tariff on imported autos and auto parts. An auto tariff could affect $350 billion in imports and trigger stiff retaliation from affected countries.

Roberts said Corker’s language would be better suited for possible trade legislation the Senate Finance Committee may write.

“We’re trying to avoid anything that might be corrosive to passing a [farm] bill,” Roberts said Tuesday.

Stabenow shared Roberts’ concerns about the Corker amendment.

“I think that is one that more splits the Senate,” Stabenow said. “We’re looking for things that would actually bring senators together in a more unifying way. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

The Trump administration Tuesday faulted the Senate farm bill for not including food stamp provisions similar to those in the House version and for not streamlining conservation programs, according to a statement of administration policy. The administration made no veto threat and said it would seek changes to the bill. 

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