WASHINGTON, June 29, 2016 - The Senate Agriculture Committee’s compromise on GMO labeling passed a key test Wednesday evening when the Senate voted 68-29 to take up the legislation over the objections of Democratic critics.

The procedural move  only required a simple majority but the large margin indicated that the bill will easily have the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster next week. 

That cloture vote will not occur until after the Senate returns to work after the extended Independence Day weekend. Wednesday afternoon is the earliest the vote could be.

“I'm pleased with the outcome of tonight's procedural vote,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. “The Senate stood up for America’s farmers, ranchers, consumers, and sound science. I look forward to the Senate acting next week.”

The vote came on a shell bill that is being used as the vehicle for  the GMO measure. Before the vote, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sparked an extended exchange over whether the legislation would contain language to defund Planned Parenthood after the GMO measure is inserted. It won’t, Democrats were assured. 

Sixteen Democrats, including the Agriculture Committee's ranking member, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, joined Maine independent Angus King, in voting to move to the GMO bill. The other Democrats: Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mark Bennett of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Dianne Feinstein of California, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Bill Nelson of Florida, Gary Peters of Michigan, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. 

Three Republicans voted against it: Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Ron Paul of Kentucky. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Warner, D-Va., didn’t vote. 

Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the bipartisan vote “is a strong show of support for the package.

Sanders placed a hold on the bill, potentially slowing down the procedural process, but a senatorial hold can be overcome with a cloture vote. 

The legislation would preempt Vermont's first-in-the-nation mandatory GMO labeling law, which takes effect this Friday, but there would be little practical impact on the industry if the legislation isn’t enacted until later in the month. 

Congress doesn’t have much time to get the bill to President Obama. Both the House and Senate will be out of session from July 15 until September because of the party conventions and the annual August recess. The House still must approve the Senate bill before it goes to the White House. 

Roberts went to the Senate floor Wednesday morning armed with talking points to respond to a critique of the bill by the Food and Drug Administration, but he said no one asked him about it. 

In the comments, FDA said the bill contains loopholes and was difficult to interpret in places. The agency, for example, said that vegetable oils, starches and purified protein would be exempt from the mandatory disclosure standard because of a requirement that the products contain “genetic material” of a biotech crop. Tests cannot detect genetic material in those products.

The critique also suggested that administration officials were not on the same page on the bill. The Agriculture Department has been assisting with drafting of the legislation, first in the House and most recently in the Senate since last year. And USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, not FDA, would be charged with implementing the Senate legislation’s mandatory disclosure standards. 

USDA officials responded to the FDA comments in an emailed statement: “Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow have worked hard to reach a consensus for how a unified, national system could work, and we are appreciative of their efforts. The draft legislation provides authority to require more than 24,000 additional products in the disclosure program than the Vermont law and will help to avoid a patchwork of state regulations that may confuse consumers and increase food costs. USDA looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to provide technical assistance upon request.”

Biotech critics, such as the Center for Food Safety, and Sanders seized on the FDA comments to criticize the bill.

Roberts said that the FDA critique was "odd, not pertinent. … the (Agriculture) Department will run the standard, not the FDA.”

Some 1,065 companies, farm cooperatives and national and state organizations across the food and agribusiness sectors signed a letter endorsing the bill. The companies include industry giants such as Coca-Cola, Monsanto and Wal-Mart as well as small businesses such as Bongards’ Creameries in Young America, Minnesota, and Freedie’s Market in Webster Groves, Missouri. 

(Updated June 30 with USDA response to FDA comments.)