Child Nutrition Bill Passes Senate

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The U.S. Senate passed a new $4.5 billion Child Nutrition bill Thursday, approving it by unanimous consent, a procedure that does not require a recorded vote.

The bill’s passage came hours after Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) indicated that the bill would not be scheduled for a vote until after the Senate returned in early September from its August break.

The House, which is considering its own $8 billion reauthorization bill, recessed without action. House members have not designated how their bill would be paid for. The Senate bill is funded with cuts in other Agriculture programs.

The surprise unanimous consent action – the parliamentary action is not usually employed for major bills – came three days after Michelle Obama pleaded with Congress in a Washington Post opinion piece to pass a nutrition bill “as soon as possible.” The current authorization for the program expires Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.  An extension, such as the one currently in place, would not provide for the new thrust of the bill: to fight obesity.

The bill – the Senate version is called The Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act – sets new nutrition standards for what is served the nation’s school children both in the lunch line and from vending machines, raises the rate of reimbursement for school lunches for the first time in three decades and continues the Women, Infants and Children program that promotes infant and maternal nutrition.

The school breakfast program and the free or reduced lunch program for students are covered under separate, permanent authorizations.  This bill only affects the nutrition offered by those meals.  

The Senate Agriculture Committee  passed its bill in March. The House’s $8 billion Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act was voted out of committee in July.  President Barack Obama had sought $10 billion for child nutrition.

Earlier Thursday Reid complained about Republicans’ “obstructionist” tactics on several important bills, including the child nutrition bill, which he said wouldn’t be considered until after the recess.

The Associated Press reported that President Obama called Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Thursday to assure him that the bill was paid for.  Coburn is among Republicans who have repeatedly blocked passage of legislation that is not paid for within the current budget.

A major portion of the proposed bills is directed at America’s obesity program, particularly obesity in children.  That’s the cause championed by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program.

In her Post opinion piece entitled “A Bill We Need,” Obama said, “We owe it to the children who aren't reaching their potential because they're not getting the nutrition they need during the day.

 “We owe it to the parents who are working to keep their families healthy and looking for a little support along the way. We owe it to the schools that are trying to make progress but don't have the resources they need. And we owe it to our country – because our prosperity depends on the health and vitality of the next generation,”

After passage Thursday, Michelle Obama – who is vacationing in Spain with her daughter Sasha – issued a statement praising the Senate and calling the bill’s passage “groundbreaking.”

The bill has been championed by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who took over the Agriculture Committee earlier this year when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) took over the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee after the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). She has frequently been joined by Sen. Richard Lugar (D-Ind.) in public attempts to cajole their fellow senators to approve the bill.

In a statement released Thursday night, Lincoln hailed the bill’s passage, saying, “It’s the fiscally responsible and right thing to do for our children.”