Senate farm bill stalled by Rubio's Cuba crusade
The Florida Republican is blocking further amendments over a provision that would promote agricultural trade with Cuba.
Updated 06/27/2018 09:27 PM EDT
Senate leadership's goal of holding a floor vote on the farm bill this week is now in doubt, as key farm-state lawmakers work to resolve a new demand from Sen. Marco Rubio over a provision that would promote agricultural trade with Cuba.
The Florida Republican on Wednesday declared on Twitter that he’d block any new amendments to the farm bill unless the Senate votes to strike a provision that would allow USDA funding for foreign market development programs to be spent in Cuba — or until senators adopt his proposal to ban U.S. taxpayer dollars from being spent on businesses owned by the Cuban military.
After a full day of debate on Wednesday, the Senate had only cleared a manager’s package by unanimous consent that contains 18 mostly uncontroversial amendments, including new protections for pollinators and provisions that would increase funding for the milk donation program and raise the catastrophic coverage level under an insurance program for milk producers.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) scored a win for some taxpayer watchdog and sustainable agriculture groups by securing a provision that would allow only one manager per farm to qualify for commodity subsidies under eligibility criteria set by USDA that require a person to be “actively engaged” in a farm's operation.
But no votes on standalone amendments are expected to be held until Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) can reach an agreement with Rubio, as well as fellow Cuba hard-liners Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), both of whom support efforts to change U.S. economic policy in relation to Cuba, are also involved in talks to break the impasse.
Stabenow said during a floor speech on Wednesday that she and Roberts have been working with Rubio to resolve the Cuba dispute for the last few days. After leaving the Senate floor, Stabenow told reporters that they will work through the evening in an effort to reach an agreement, which may mean modifying language pertaining to Cuba, so that it is more narrow, or adding other restrictions on Cuba.
“Hopefully we can do that, because there are a lot of folks really counting on us to be able to come together and get this done,” Stabenow said, adding that the Senate still intends to hold a final vote on the farm bill this week.
Early Wednesday evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on the bill. In effect, that means that the earliest a final vote could be held would likely be Friday, unless senators agree to shorten debate.
Roberts, echoing Stabenow's point on the importance of the legislation, said the U.S. agriculture community “is in dire need of this farm bill” because producers have endured slumping commodity prices that have led to a steep decline in farm income in recent years. Further, new woes are cropping up in the form of retaliatory tariffs as trading partners respond to President Donald Trump’s aggressive trade actions.
Lawmakers have cited those conditions as justification for passing a farm bill quickly to provide producers with a greater degree of economic certainty. The current farm bill expires at the end of September.
Roberts, referring indirectly to Rubio, said that passing a farm bill “is paramount over any other issue,” despite some lawmakers wanting to use the farm bill as a vehicle to make a reform “that they believe is very salutary.”
Rubio’s opposition stems from an amendment that Heitkamp secured during the Senate Agriculture Committee's markup of the farm bill earlier this month. It would apply to USDA initiatives like the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program, which match taxpayer dollars to private investments by the agribusiness sector to fund projects overseas that build demand for U.S. farm goods.
Many parts of the agriculture industry are interested in opening Cuba to more U.S. farm goods, seeing the island nation as a convenient and largely untapped market. Cuba imported about $260 million in U.S. farm goods last year, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Cruz has offered an amendment that would block taxpayer funds from being used to support trade promotion programs in Cuba. Rubio’s amendment, meanwhile, would codify an executive order that prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used on programs that benefit businesses owned by the Cuban military.
Following his tweet, Rubio took to the Senate floor on Wednesday afternoon to formally announce his objection.
“I’m not going to object to the ability for American farmers to market our products to a market,” he said. “In the end, it’s food. What I do think we should not allow, however, is the ability to spend taxpayer money in properties and in other places on the island that are owned and controlled by the Cuban military.”
Heitkamp, in a statement, noted that her amendment had broad support when it cleared committee.
“This amendment passed unanimously with overwhelming bipartisan support during markup of the farm bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee," she said, adding: "This amendment would do nothing to lift current restrictions on doing business with the Cuban government, and it would provide a much-needed opportunity for American producers when so many of our important trade relationships are suffering from uncertainty."
Under current law, U.S. producers are free to travel to Cuba to meet with importers on their own dime, said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Rubio. “Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to subsidize private U.S. industries to travel to Cuba, especially when that money goes into the pocket of the Cuban military,” she said.
Another round of fireworks on the Senate floor came earlier in the day when Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) tried to introduce an amendment that would curb Trump’s authority to impose tariffs using national security justifications. The senators aimed to get the amendment tacked onto the farm bill after failing to include it as part of a defense bill earlier this month, but they were rebuffed this time when Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) blocked a vote.
Some Republicans had speculated privately earlier in the week that Corker's measure could at least get a procedural vote, as POLITICO reported previously, but any one senator can block a vote under the chamber's rules.
“I don’t even know what this body has become that we can’t vote on an issue that is damaging farmers more than what 20 farm bills can make up for,” Corker said, arguing that the amendment should be considered because existing and forthcoming retaliatory tariffs from China and imminent retaliation by Canada and other U.S. allies will cut into the bottom lines of many farmers and ranchers.
Brown, in response, argued that the controversial amendment would have jeopardized the farm bill and also could have forced lawmakers to choose between supporting either the agriculture industry or the steel industry.
“We should not pit farmers against steelworkers,” he said.