WASHINGTON, May 18, 2016 - House Republicans advanced a bill that could weaken some of the Obama administration’s child nutrition standards and allow some states to experiment with setting their own rules for school meals.

The measure, which the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved on a party-line vote Wednesday, also would tighten a “community eligibility” provision (CEP) that allows all students to get free meals in schools located in certain high-poverty areas. The savings would be used to increase subsidies for school breakfasts and expand access to summer meals.

The legislation would replace the expired Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said had forced “billions of dollars in new costs” on schools by increasing meal standards.

“The vast majority of schools may be in compliance with these new rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy or without cost or that it’s having its desired effect,” he said.

The House measure, which has no future in the Senate the way the bill is written, differs sharply from a bipartisan reauthorization bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee in January. That measure, which would ensure the higher nutrition standards largely continue in effect after Obama leaves office, has yet to be debated on the Senate floor after cost estimates came in higher than anticipated.

“This issue is too important for political gamesmanship,” said the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. “I hope House Republicans will reconsider this approach and work with us to pass a bipartisan bill that moves these critical programs forward.”

The House bill would require USDA to conduct an immediate review of school meal standards, including limits on sodium limits and whole grain requirements, and then conduct additional reassessments every three years. The legislation wouldn't alter the standards directly, but USDA would be required to ensure that the standards don’t reduce student participation and don’t increase costs for schools. The legislation also would exempt student fundraisers from nutrition standards.

Addressing charges that the bill was partisan, Kline said that Democrats had “jammed” the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act through Congress as they were about to lose control of the House in 2010.

Democrats charged that the GOP bill would undermine key improvements in nutrition standards and deny meals to needy kids.

Much of their criticism was directed at increasing the threshold at which schools could qualify for the community eligibility provision as well as a measure added Wednesday that would allow three states to run the school breakfast and lunch programs on their own, using the federal money in the form of block grants.

The provision was added to appeal to hard-line conservatives, but even that didn’t go far enough for the Heritage Foundation, which criticized the bill for not rolling back the nutrition standards. The legislation “would tinker with these standards, effectively giving its blessing to the extremely prescriptive standards that have been widely pushed by first lady Michelle Obama,” wrote Heritage analysts. They also argued that the community eligibility provision should be eliminated, not tightened.

In a poke at Republicans, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Bobby Scott of Virginia, playfully proposed to change the name of the bill from the “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act” to the “Hunger Games Act.” Later, Democrats forced votes on a series of amendments that unsuccessfully attempted to strip those and other provisions from the bill, including the requirement for USDA reviews of the nutrition standards.

Scott said improved school meals were critical to combatting childhood obesity and other health problems. “We can put money into these important programs now  … or we can cut corners and spend more money down the road,” he said. “Either way we spend the money.”

 The idea of turning the meal programs over to states to run even drew the ire of the School Nutrition Association, which has clashed repeatedly with the administration over the standards. SNA called the proposal “reckless” and the “first step toward eliminating this federal guarantee that all children – including America's most vulnerable students – will have access to the nutrition they need to succeed at school."

Republicans accepted a Democratic amendment, proposed by Jared Polis of Colorado, that would add representatives of pediatricians, dietitians and parents to the group of stakeholders required to participate in USDA’s reviews of nutrition standards.

Tea Party-backed Republicans on the committee proposed to turn the entire school meal program over to the states, but Kline said that went too far, and the amendment by Glenn Grothman, R-Wis.,failed, 9-25.