By Tamar Hallerman
The Senate passed the biggest overhaul of the nation's food-safety system in more than 70 years Tuesday, overcoming a last-minute filibuster attempt.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which lay dormant for months even after the salmonella egg scare earlier this summer, passed with bipartisan support, 73-25.
It gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to announce mandatory recalls on tainted products. Before, recalls were voluntary.
The legislation also grants the FDA the power to impose stricter standards on foods -- including imports -- and conduct more frequent inspections of food-processing facilities. The bill also includes an amendment exempting small farmers and those who sell directly to farmers markets from the regulations.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said he is confident the amendment will protect small farmers, who worried about the reach of the bill.
"After nearly a year of needless delays, we have finally moved forward on this bipartisan bill that will protect Colorado consumers and finally bring food safety in this country into the 21st century," Bennet said."This is a significant victory for the American people, both on the consumer side and the industry side."
The House passed a broader version of the bill in July 2009, but because there are differences in the two bills, the lower chamber must reconsider the measure.
If the House wants President Obama to sign the bill by Christmas, it would have to pass the Senate's more conservative version of the bill and not make changes, said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who shepherded the legislation through the Senate.
He said he struck an agreement with Democratic House leaders to do just that.
"This took years to get to," Harkin said. "I'm hopeful now that the House will take this bill that has bipartisan support, and they will simply pass the bill as it is in the Senate."
The fight moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where members will decide how much money to give the FDA to enforce its newly acquired powers. With Tuesday's vote, senators simply authorized spending $1.4 billion during the five years. However, appropriators can choose to give the agency less money for the initiative.
"We got this bill down to a very reasonable cost," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the top Republican on the Senate HELP Committee. "There's no iron-clad guarantee of (securing the funding), but that is what's needed in order to make the bill work."
The measure, although popular, faced procedural hurdles from the beginning from both industry and a small group of opposing senators.
A particular lightning rod was an amendment proposed by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., that aimed to ban the chemical Bisphenol-A, better known as BPA, from the lining of baby bottles and cups. Facing staunch opposition from industry representatives, Feinstein eventually withdrew the amendment.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., filibustered the bill before Thanksgiving because of concerns about the cost, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates to be about $1.4 billion. However, the cost will be offset by cuts in the federal budget elsewhere, proponents argued.
Coburn also proposed a last-minute amendment to ban all earmarks, or money for pet-projects in home districts, for the fiscal years 2011-2013, a cause that Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., spoke out publicly in support of, going against unofficial party platform.
"If we're serious about getting our country's balance sheet healthy that a place to start is to end the practice of earmarking," Udall said.
However, the amendment failed by a decisive 39-56 margin in the lead-up to Tuesday's vote.
Despite the proposed amendments and partisan bickering, the bill eventually received widespread support from various interest groups, ranging from the pro-business Chamber of Commerce to the consumer advocate organization Public Interest Research Group.
Passing the bill was part of a long list of legislative priorities Democrats are trying to enact before Congress adjourns at the end of the month.
"It's been a journey, hasn't it?" Udall asked.