WASHINGTON, March 14, 2016 - Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts offered a new plan for disclosing biotech food ingredients even as he continued negotiations on a deal that could get enough Democratic votes to pass the Senate. 

Roberts’ latest version is similar to a proposal drafted earlier by Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly, but the committee's top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, didn't sign off on the proposal, and Roberts told Agri-Pulse he still wasn't certain it would get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster by proponents of mandatory on-package labeling. >

Roberts and Stabenow spoke one right after the other at Agri-Pulse's National Ag Day kick-off event on Monday on Capitol Hill and both made clear they were committed to passing some form of the legislation.

“Pat and I have been able on every issue to be able to find a way to come to the middle to get a majority of bipartisan votes ... to move things forward for agriculture,” Stabenow said. “I’ve never had a more difficult and challenging issue than the one that is in front of us.” 

Under Roberts' proposal, food companies would be given three years to voluntarily disclose the presence of genetically engineered ingredients through the industry’s smart-phone based disclosure system or some other method.

But disclosure would eventually become mandatory if it doesn't cover at least 70 percent of the food supply. The disclosure could be done through a variety of measures, including websites, call centers and scanning technology as well as on-package labeling. 

“This legislation is a true compromise,” said Roberts, R-Kan. “I have worked with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to find a balance between consumers’ right to know and ensuring an even playing field in the marketplace.” 

Roberts and Stabenow, D-Mich., are running out of time to reach a deal, with the Senate set to take up the legislation Wednesday in time to consider it before the two-week Easter recess. The revised legislation would replace a bill that the Senate Agriculture Committee approved, 14-6, to block state GMO labeling laws, the first of which is scheduled to  take effect July 1 in Vermont.

In remarks on the Senate floor Monday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., appealed to colleagues to keep working with Roberts on a compromise. “Let’s not forget, this may well be our last chance to prevent the actions of one state from hurting Americans in other states,” McConnell said. 

Stabenow didn’t indicate what the remaining disagreements were, but as she was leaving she indicated that the disagreement involved other senators. “If it was just us we could” reach agreement, she said, referring to Roberts. Roberts replied, “That’s very true.”

According to a source familiar with the negotiations, Stabenow has proposed to require companies put a special symbol on package labels if they don't use the smartphone, or QR, code

Roberts said that some of the changes that Democrats are demanding cost the bill support from Republicans. 

Many of the attendees at the Agri-Pulse event represented companies, trade associations with a direct interest in the legislation, and Stabenow warned them that they would have to step up their public education efforts. 

“Regardless of how we thread the needle to get this done we can no longer sit back and not tell the story of biotechnology,” she said. 

“It’s been way too long that we’ve been hoping that the extremists would go away. They haven’t gone away. They’ve just gotten louder and louder and louder.”

In a sign that the talks still had a way to go, Stabenow issued a statement Tuesday morning criticizing Roberts’ latest proposal “as nothing more than the status quo for consumers who want information about the food they are purchasing,”

Later on the Senate floor, the leading proponent of mandatory on-package GMO labeling, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., called Roberts’ plan the “Monsanto DARK Act 2.0.” DARK stands for “denying Americans the right to know.”

Merkley also suggested that Republicans were trying to hide the Senate's GMO debate from the public and the news media by scheduling it on a major primary day.

(Updated March 16, 11 a.m.)