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Published June 16, 2014, 09:56 AM

Action on ag appropriations postponed

The House of Representatives has postponed action on the fiscal year 2015 Agriculture appropriations bill until the week of June 23, but the Senate plans to take up its version of the bill this week.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives has postponed action on the fiscal year 2015 Agriculture appropriations bill until the week of June 23, but the Senate plans to take up its version of the bill this week.

The reason for the delay in the House is the need to elect a new majority leader after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., lost his primary on June 10, and announced his resignation effective July 31. House Republicans have set June 19, as the election date for new leadership, although it appears that House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will be the only candidate for the post after other candidates dropped out.

“The machinery of the House is on pause,” a senior GOP House aide told Agweek. “The whip operation is for the majority leader’s race. Anything (legislation) that needs a whip operation is being postponed until after the election (of House leaders),” the aide said.

The major issue in both bills is whether to make changes to school meal rules imposed under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The new rules require schools to reduce sugar, fat and sodium and serve more low-fat dairy and meat products, whole grain foods and fruits and vegetables.

Democrats are expected to propose an amendment to strike a provision in the House bill that would require the Agriculture Department to grant a waiver from healthier meal rules to any school that says it has been losing money in its lunch program for six months. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and companies that make foods for the schools, wants the waiver, but nutritionists, doctors and many members of SNA oppose it.

Nutritionists and Democrats are working hard to gain support to strike that provision, and maintaining the waiver provision would require a whip operation.

The Senate bill includes a provision written by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would give schools more flexibility on sodium and grains. But Hoeven has said he would also like a measure to address the schools’ complaints that the new rules are wreaking havoc with some food budgets because the newly required foods are more expensive.

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has campaigned against childhood obesity, said she would oppose the changes “to the bitter end.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also held a hearing on child nutrition and said she is opposing rolling back the rules but would agree to support the Hoeven-Harkin amendment.

The House suspended action after approving a food aid amendment that was opposed by farm groups.

The House approved an amendment offered by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. that provides $10 million for the Local and Regional Purchase program that allows the U.S. government to buy food closer to areas of crisis. The amendment provides the money by reducing funding for the Agricultural Marketing Service.

“In a time of shrinking budgets we are forced to do more with less,” Royce said. “It is crucial that the United States has the tools to respond to humanitarian crises while stretching our food aid dollars further.”

He said, “From the ongoing crisis in Syria to the devastating typhoon in the Philippines, starving people do not have months to wait for emergency food to arrive. The LRP program is a bipartisan tool that been proven to reduce delivery time and costs. This proposal is common sense — it allows us to save the lives of more people facing starvation, more quickly, at a lower cost.” A coalition of nonprofit groups including the World Food Program USA, Oxfam and Bread for the World supported the amendment.

The amendment passed 223 to 198 even though a coalition of farm groups — American Sugar Alliance, Minnesota Corn Growers Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cotton Council, National Crop Insurance Services, Southwest Council of Agribusiness and USA Rice Federation — opposed it.

Those groups said the amendment “would shift funding from the Agricultural Marketing Service to a newly authorized and controversial foreign food assistance program — the Local and Regional Purchase program — used to purchase foreign produced commodities for food aid rather than homegrown, American food.”