- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2010

With a number of Republicans breaking ranks, the Senate on Wednesday voted to allow debate to go forward on what supporters say would be the biggest overhaul of the nation’s food-safety laws since the Great Depression.

In one of the first votes of the post-election lame-duck session of Congress, the Senate voted 74-25 to move forward on the bill, far more than the three-fifths majority of 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster. Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, had led opposition to the bill on the grounds that supporters had not found the funds to pay for the bill’s estimated $1.4 billion tab.

Boosted by a series of recent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in peanuts, eggs and other produce, the measure would strengthen the authority of the Food and Drug Administration to recall tainted products, inspect private food processors and set higher standards for food storage.

“The simple fact of the matter is there are wide gaps when it comes to food safety in America, and those gaps need to be closed by this bill,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.

Despite the vote, the bill still faces an uncertain future with the lame-duck session set to adjourn by the end of the year. The Senate still must deal with an amendment that would exempt smaller farms and food facilities from some of the bill’s requirements, and the Senate draft differs in several ways from a food-safety bill already passed by the House of Representatives.

Assuming the differences can be ironed out in the next few weeks, the Senate vote Wednesday could hand President Obama one of his few legislative victories from what is shaping up as an unproductive lame-duck session. The administration earlier this week issued a policy statement saying it supported the Senate bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after the vote he would still need GOP cooperation to set a time limit on debate and proceed to a final vote. Mr. Coburn has said he will try to delay the bill once again if he is blocked from offering another amendment calling for a moratorium on the practice of earmarks on spending bills.

“Whenever Republicans let us bring it up, we’re going to finish the bill,” Mr. Reid said.

But some Senate Republicans said the Democrats were to blame for the rush in the final days to pass the bill, noting that the FDA bill was reported out of committee more than a year ago.

Sixteen Republicans joined 56 Democrats and two independents to defeat the filibuster. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the lone Democrat to vote to block debate on the bill.

Republicans held firm on a second test vote Wednesday, blocking a bid to move forward on a “paycheck fairness” bill that would have expanded the Equal Pay Act to improve protections for female workers against wage discrimination.

The vote was 58-41 - two short of the supermajority needed to break the filibuster.

Mr. Obama condemned the vote, saying in statement a “partisan minority of senators” were blocking consideration of the measure.

c This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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