Conservatives could stymie nutrition, food safety bills in lame duck

Newly empowered conservatives are vowing to stymie Democrats' policy priorities in the lame-duck session. That could have repercussions on a couple of health-related bills, including childhood nutrition and food safety.

The nonprofit Americans for Prosperity is holding a "November Speaks" event on Monday to press lawmakers "not to pass any new legislation from the Left's agenda in the Lame Duck session." Expected speakers at the event include Republican Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.) and Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and congressmen-elect Morgan Griffith (Va.), Frank Guinta (N.H.) and Sean Duffy (Wis.).

Bachmann herself rejoiced on her Web site last week that Democrats' "train of big spending and big government has been stopped in its tracks." Still, she warned, "in the meantime, a dangerous agenda could be presented by the Democrats in the lame duck session of Congress and Americans must keep a vigilant eye."

Americans for Prosperity hasn't specified which bills it opposes, but conservatives in the past have objected to the cost of a childhood nutrition bill that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said is one of three lame-duck priorities -- along with the new START treaty and the Bush tax cuts -- for President Obama.

The $4.5 billion bill would expand eligibility for school meal programs, establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools and provide a 6-cent increase for each school lunch to help cafeterias serve healthier meals.

The Senate passed its version unanimously right before the August recess, and Democrats see the lame-duck session as their last best chance to get it through the House before the new majority takes over in January. The bill got an extra boost last week when a diverse coalition of more than 1,100 groups announced their support and two liberals -- Reps. Jim McGovern (Mass.) and Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) -- got on board despite reservations that the bill is half paid for by ending an expansion of the food stamp program five months early.

For its part, the Senate is expected to take up food safety legislation this coming week. The bill was held up before the elections because Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) objected to passage by unanimous consent.

The House passed its version in July 2009 and a final bill could yet clear Congress this year if there's a speedy conference committee or if the House adopts whatever the Senate ends up passing.

Another priority is preventing a 23 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians that's scheduled to take effect Dec. 1. Both parties agree the cut needs to be prevented to keep Medicare functioning smoothly but finding pay-fors acceptable to both parties will be tough.

One thing's for sure: Lawmakers can expect to be inundated with calls from physicians next week. The American Medical Association, which wants Congress to pass a bill that will prevent cuts for 13 months at least, wants doctors across the country to call their senators for "White Coat Wednesday" on Nov. 17.