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Agriculture Funding Bill Passes House, Odd Amendments And All

A genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon looms behind an Atlantic salmon sibling of the same age.
A genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon looms behind an Atlantic salmon sibling of the same age.

What do genetically engineered salmon, school lunch standards, and a controversial abortion pill have in common? They're all part of the House agriculture appropriations bill that passed Thursday by a vote of 217 to 203.

The ag spending bill that keeps the country's farm and food programs rolling is often a magnet for specialized amendments, and this year it offers a peek into brewing battles over the federal deficit.

As part of their pledge to reign in spending, House GOP leaders worked hard to keep the cost of the bill down — too far down — say Democrats.

"As the Congress continues the battle to lower spending, cut waste and create jobs, this bill represents a reduction of 13.4 percent in discretionary funding and makes the tough choices necessary to reduce spending while keeping our bill's basic missions of food production, food and drug safety, rural development and nutrition programs intact," said Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston of Georgia.

Democrats, who lost in their efforts to restore some of the funding during the course of the three-day debate, disagree.

A big Democratic complaint is that the bill cuts more than $650 million from the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, which usually enjoys broad bipartisan support. About half the babies born in this country are eligible, and up to 350,000 people could be turned away if the cuts are sustained.

The House bill also makes significant cuts to government food safety programs at a time when E. coli outbreaks are a rising concern and salmonella is getting worse.

However, farm subsidies did not appear to be a place where the House thought it should cut back. For example, it rejected efforts by Arizona Republican to cut farm subsidies for people earning more than $250,000 a year.

The bill effectively guts the USDA's new school lunch nutrition standards by sending the department back to the drawing board to re-write the rules. That means the 6-cents-per-lunch increase schools that comply with the new standards were expecting may evaporate.

"For millions of children, the meals they eat at school serve as a nutritional safety net — denying these children healthy options at school is just another example of House Republicans choosing to prioritize oil companies and big business instead of the children who need our help the most," said House Education and Workforce ranking Democrat George Miller of California after the House vote.

The bill also contains some surprise amendments, like the one that prevents the Food and Drug Administration from approving genetically engineered salmon and the one blocking any funds from being used for mifepristone, commonly known as the abortion pill, RU-486.

But the House bill is not the final word. The Senate still has to write its version, and that process is at least several weeks away, congressional aides say.

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