By Aarian Marshall
WASHINGTON, June 18, 2014 - The Senate began its consideration of a “minibus” bill that includes agriculture appropriations Tuesday, though lawmakers put off discussion of ag-specific measures until at least Wednesday morning. The minibus -- which includes the fiscal year 2015 appropriations for USDA and FDA; Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies; and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development -- is part of a Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski’s larger push to complete the budget process more quickly than in recent years.
Some thought the appropriations process wouldn’t begin in earnest until a lame duck session following the mid-term election, said lobbyist Randy Russell of the Russell Group, who has been involved in appropriations for almost thirty years. Moving two or three bills at a time, he explained, is less controversial that an omnibus bill, which was used to pass the fiscal 2014 appropriations budget last year. Consideration of minibus legislation will take about a week, according to Senate aides.
Meanwhile, the debate on the House agriculture appropriations bill that began last week will not resume until after Republicans have chosen a successor for Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who lost his primary election earlier this month in a stunning upset.
The House will not touch most legislation until after the leadership positions have been decided, according to House aides. Republican whipping operations, usually reserved for mobilizing and counting legislative votes, are currently focused on the majority leader’s race. That vote is scheduled for Thursday.
That race, however, appears mostly wrapped up. Current Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California has all but cornered the votes, according to a number of reports. That’s despite a challenge from further right-leaning Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.
When the House does resume discussion of the bill, however, it will undoubtedly continue a debate began during the first part of the appropriations process on school lunch waivers. Though an attempt by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, to change the Republican-endorsed language granting waivers to schools struggling with new nutrition guidelines failed in committee, another similar amendment is certain to come before the whole House.
A number of school nutrition professionals, including the School Nutrition Association, argue that new nutrition guidelines implemented by the USDA that compel schools to serve more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat options are too burdensome and costly for many districts. They also say much of the new, healthier food ends up in the trash after students accustomed to different options complain about the taste.
The bill reported out of the Senate Appropriations Committee does not include a similar waiver, though it would delay implementation of sodium guidelines until 2017 and require that only 50 percent of school lunch grains be whole-grain rich, rather than 100 percent now required by law.
In a Statement of Administration policy, the White House said it “appreciates the Committee's continued support for science-based nutrition standards for children” and opposes any language that would override such standards, including the potential to include – pending further scientific review – white potatoes in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food package.
The Administration is also concerned that the bill “excludes proposed food aid reforms that would help two million more people in crises without additional resources. At a time when major food crises are increasing, including those in South Sudan and Syria, the proposed reforms to allow more cost-effective, flexible emergency food aid are critical.”
The White House expressed disappointment that the Senate bill prohibits closure of Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices and reduces the FY 2015 budget request by $33 million for the MIDAS information technology initiative.
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