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September 22, 2010
Despite a flurry of rumors to the contrary, the food safety bill pending in the Senate does not appear to moving anywhere fast.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) “hotlined” the bipartisan bill yesterday, notifying senators that the legislation is ready to be considered under unanimous consent, a critical step forward, if no one objects to the guidelines for debate and amendments.
But Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) made it clear yesterday he still objects to the bill, citing $1.4 billion in additional spending and “burdensome new regulations.”
Coburn’s objection means Democrats would need to invoke cloture, which requires 60 votes, to limit debate on the floor. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the committee that considered the legislation, told reporters last week he believes he has more than 90 votes for the bill.
This may sound like easy math, but cloture takes a lot of time and the upper chamber has a limited number of work days remaining before the contentious midterm election cycle.
“Right now it’s an issue of time,” Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid, said. “It would be a much better situation if we can get [a unanimous consent] agreement.”
“Our hope is that we can move this bill this work period,” said Lachapelle, who blamed the time crunch on Republican “obstructionism” and a bevy of other legislative priorities–including defense authorization, tax cuts, and a continuing resolution.
Coburn, however, blames the impasse on Reid.
“If the Majority Leader wants the bill to advance he should pay for it,” John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, wrote in an email. “Dr. Coburn isn’t responsible for the Majority Leader’s failure to write offsets into the base bill.”
“As Dr. Coburn said last week, the American people should question the competence of any member of Congress who can’t find $1.4 billion of waste in a $3.5 trillion budget to pay for this bill,” added Hart.
Coburn’s insistence that the authorizing language contain a cost offset has many in food policy circles scratching their heads.
Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition who has been working on the food safety bill extensively, called Coburn’s demand a “logical impossibility.”
“Like the vast majority of authorizing bills, [S.510] merely authorizes the possibility of later appropriations,” explained Hoefner. “The policies and programs authorized are then considered at a later time by the Appropriations Committees who determine whether or not to fund the authorizations. Some get funded, others do not.”
“It is not possible to “pay for” or “offset” a discretionary program in an authorization bill,” he added. “It is perfectly valid to debate the potential ultimate cost of passing a food safety bill. It is not logical, however, to then morph into a debate about offsetting that potential cost. That debate occurs in the context of a completely different piece of legislation, in this case the agricultural appropriations bill.”
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act has been stalled since November, when it was unanimously voted out of committee.
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