Food safety bill in serious trouble

Dec 17, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – A broad food safety bill that in an earlier version had overwhelming support in the Senate was in serious trouble and running out of time today, after Senate Democratic leaders gave up on a huge omnibus spending bill to which the food measure was attached.

The Senate Democrats gave up on the omnibus spending bill, designed to fund the government through next September, last night after it became clear that Republicans would unite to block it, mainly because of large sums in earmarks for local projects, according to multiple news reports. Congress faces a deadline of tomorrow night to pass a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.

House and Senate leaders were reported to be negotiating today on a short-term spending resolution to keep the government running until February, after the new Congress, with Republicans taking control of the House, convenes in January.

Max Gleischman, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told CIDRAP News today that Democratic leaders were working to attach the food safety legislation to the short-term spending resolution. Durbin is a leading sponsor of the food bill.

But CNN reported this afternoon that Senate leadership aides in both parties were saying the bill's chances looked bleak because Republicans object to giving it quick approval. The story said a short-term government funding bill is likely to pass tomorrow, but Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., warned he would object if it included the food safety legislation. A Republican aide told CNN it would be impossible to approve the food bill quickly without unanimous Republican support.

Coburn has fought the legislation at every step, arguing that it is too costly and heavy-handed and will do little to make food safer.

The legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more authority and responsibility for preventing food contamination and calls for more frequent inspections of food facilities. It requires food establishments to develop contamination prevention plans, and it increases oversight of imported food.

The House was the first to pass a version of the legislation, in July 2009. The Senate finally passed its own bill, which was regarded as weaker than the House version, on Nov 30 of this year. But it immediately became clear that the bill had a technical flaw: It empowered the FDA to charge fees for certain activities, such as facility reinspections, which violates a consititutional requirement that all revenue-raising measures must originate in the House.

House supporters of the legislation moved to solve this problem by taking the Senate bill, making minor technical changes, and attaching it to an omnibus spending bill in the House. The spending bill was approved by the House Dec 8 on a 212 to 206 vote.

Senate leaders hoped to pass the huge spending bill with the food safety legislation attached. But last night they gave up when nine Republicans who previously promised to back the spending bill withdrew their support at the last minute under heavy pressure from colleagues, the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill reported. The $1.1 trillion bill included more than 6,000 earmarks, the story said.

Late this afternoon, The Hill reported that with no Senate agreement on a spending bill in sight, the House late this afternoon passed a stop-gap resolution to keep the government funded for 3 more days.

See also:

Dec 9 CIDRAP News story

Dec 17 CNN report

Dec 17 Food Safety News story

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