House Democratic leaders are indicating that beleaguered food safety legislation will likely be considered by the lower chamber this week, as early as Wednesday or Thursday.  

The food safety bill hit the rocks last week after the Senate easily passed its version, 73-25. Then it came to light that the bill contained a revenue-raising provision, which is technically unconstitutional–the Constitution stipulates that such measures originate in the House.

With little time left in the 111th Congress, it appears the bill may get a break in the next few days.

Tuesday, Democratic leadership asked lawmakers to respond by the end of the day indicating how they planned to vote, a concrete step toward moving legislation to the floor.  A senior Democratic leadership aide told Food Safety News that, depending on support, the bill could be on the floor this week.

It is unclear whether the House will take up a stand-alone bill or attach it to another piece of legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told reporters Tuesday that lawmakers would consider a new version of the food safety bill–even though they passed a stronger version in July 2009 than the Senate did last week–in order to expedite the process and possibly return the bill to the Senate for approval by the weekend.

“We think that’s a better bill,” Hoyer said, referring to the House food safety bill, which contains new broad authorities for FDA, increased inspection frequencies, and fees to supplement costs, “but we’re inclined to take the Senate bill, and the new bill will reflect the Senate bill.”

As Mike Lillis of The Hill rightly noted yesterday: “Returning the bill to the Senate complicates the process.  Not only have Senate Republicans vowed to oppose anything that hits the floor before tax cuts and government funding matters are finalized, but the second upper chamber vote allows Sen. Tom Coburn [R-OK] another chance to block the bill.”

Sen. Coburn has been the measure’s most vehement opponent, arguing that it would add to the deficit (although the Congressional Budget Office says it’s deficit neutral), increase government bureaucracy, and does not address systemic problems with food safety enforcement.  His objection was circumvented by invoking cloture, a maneuver that requires 60 votes.

“Coburn’s stalling tactics have left bill supporters wary that there’s little room on the Senate calendar to accommodate the food safety vote if he repeats them,” said Lillis on The Hill’s Healthwatch blog.

There is speculation on Capitol Hill that the House will consider a version very similar–if not identical–to the Senate bill, with changes to address the presumably unconstitutional provision.  The Senate could then consider the bill as an attachment to a combination of other measures expected to pass before Congress adjourns.

Whether the final version would contain an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) to exempt small farms and products under certain circumstances, which was included in the Senate bill, is not completely clear.  Sustainable agriculture and local food advocates expressed confidence that the House would leave the language intact, but the giants of the produce industry, including the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association, are working to get the provision dropped.

The leading produce trade groups have long argued that any exemptions should be based on science and risk, not geography and gross income, as the Senate exemptions are.

“It is up to the House to see if they want to fix this,” Robert Guenther, United Fresh’s vice president for public policy, told Food Safety News.  “A lot of people are working on this behind scenes … we are still hoping the House makes some changes.”

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