WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2016 -- The markup scheduled for Thursday for Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts’ voluntary biotech labeling bill has been postponed until sometime next week.

The official statement on the committee’s website attributes the postponement simply to “changes on the Senate floor." A spokeswoman later said Roberts postponed the markup at the request of Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the committee's ranking member, because her bill providing assistance in Flint, Michigan's water crisis is headed to the Senate floor on Thursday.

"The chairman remains ready to proceed to the markup with his draft," she said.

The postponement gives Roberts more time to seek the Democratic support he has said he needs for the biotech bill to move forward. Stabenow, for example, remains opposed. 

"I don’t support his chairman’s mark, but I’d like to very much find a bipartisan compromise,” Stabenow told Agri-Pulse
Roberts, meanwhile, said negotiations continue.

“This chairman's Mark serves as a framework to find a solution for a patchwork of laws, and I will continue to work with members of the Agriculture Committee on potential amendments,” Roberts said in a statement. “However, we are out of time. The time to act is now. Negotiations will continue in an effort to reach Committee agreement.”

Stabenow may still be opposed to the bill that would preempt state labeling laws, but a vast array of farm groups are anxious for the legislation to move as July 1 approaches. That’s when Vermont’s mandatory labeling law for products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is set to go into effect.

“The issue of biotech labeling is one of the most significant issues that the agriculture and food industry has faced in recent years,” a coalition of more than 650 agricultural groups and companies said in a recent letter to Roberts. “This very system—which produces the most abundant, the highest quality, and the most affordable food supply in the world—will be threatened with large economic costs without a national uniform solution to the biotech labeling issue.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, following an appearance before a House committee, told reporters that if Congress doesn’t act on a national standard for labeling of GMO foods, he would. He also praised Roberts and Stabenow for their efforts to find common ground.

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“I really appreciate chairman Roberts bringing this matter to a head quickly,” Vilsack said. “I think he recognizes and Sen. Stabenow recognizes that this is a matter that needs to be resolved before the Vermont law goes into effect. If there are two people who can reach consensus on a very sticky, tough issue, it’s those two members. If it’s crafted right, I think there will be strong bipartisan support.”  
(This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. to include comment from a spokeswoman for Roberts and from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack. Steve Davies contributed to this report.)