First lady defeated in panel vote

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Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee tried and failed Thursday to stop a Republican attempt to allow schools to opt out of nutrition standards backed by first lady Michelle Obama.

In a party-line, 22-29 vote, the panel rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) to kill language that would allow schools to opt out of offering lunches that meet higher nutrition standards. The vote came after nearly one hour and 40 minutes of debate, the longest on any amendment during the 2015 spending bill process. 

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The language backed by Republicans would require the Department of Agriculture to grant waivers to school lunch programs that can show they have operated at a net loss over six months.

School boards argue the losses are related to the nutrition standards. The first lady has harshly criticized the GOP attempt to allow waivers, calling it unacceptable.

Republicans argued at the markup on Thursday that the waiver language does not gut the nutrition standards but rather just helps struggling schools get an extra year to implement them, 

“I do think Mrs. Obama is well-intentioned. ... I am not sure she realizes the full impact in greater America,” Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the author of the language, said.

After a dialogue with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Aderholt said he is open to modifying the language to make it clear that the waiver is only temporary and the bill’s intent is not to roll back the standards nationally.

“If we tighten the language to make that more clear that would make a lot of us more comfortable,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Other Democrats stuck to their argument that the waiver is so broad that it would effectively roll back the standards as districts use creative accounting to game the waivers to bump up their budgets.

The language is included in a spending bill for the Department of Agriculture. It is slated to move out of the full committee on Thursday for likely House floor action next month. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a companion bill with less controversial delays in some of the food standards on sodium and wheat.

The White House has made a full-court press against the House waiver.

Michelle Obama held an event blasting the language this week and penned on opinion piece in Thursday’s edition of The New York Times against it.