Sen. Lincoln, White House optimistic about chances of child nutrition bill

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said Wednesday she’s hopeful the upper chamber will soon take up her bill to improve school lunch programs and other child nutrition initiatives. The Arkansas Democrat said she’s pushing party leaders to bring the reauthorization bill to the floor before the programs expire at the end of September. 

“I’m kind of needling them,” Lincoln told The Hill during a child welfare forum in Washington.

Lincoln’s bill, which would provide $4.5 billion to bolster the safety and nutritional value of student meals, passed the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously in March. The bipartisan support has left child advocates optimistic that the funding proposal can squeak through Congress this year, even as most legislation has been stalled in the Senate over deficit spending concerns.  

Bruce Lesley, head of First Focus, a child welfare group, said Wednesday that congressional gridlock is threatening a number of child programs. But among the legislation his group is pushing, Lesley noted that Lincoln’s bill — dubbed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — has the best chance of passing this year.

The White House also likes the bill’s chances. Heather Higginbottom, President Obama’s deputy director of domestic policy, said Wednesday that the Agriculture vote is good indication that the bill has legs, even in this year’s politically polarized environment. The White House, Higginbottom said, is “very hopeful that the Senate will take up that legislation very soon.”

Meanwhile, the House Education and Labor Committee is marking up the lower chamber’s version of the bill Wednesday afternoon. That bill, sponsored by panel chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), would expand funding for child safety and nutrition programs by roughly $8 billion. The pricetag — and the fact that the new costs aren’t all offset — has riled the opposition of panel Republicans, who are leery of more government borrowing. 

Lincoln said Wednesday that she and Miller are largely on the same page when it comes to reforming child nutrition programs. But she doubted that the House’s larger, unfunded bill could survive a Congress with little appetite for more deficit spending.