Safer food ahead? (photo: joeszilvagyi via Flickr)

A couple other things get knocked out when the Senate ditched the omnibus bill last night. The House, when it passed its measure to fund the government, attached the food safety bill to it. That bill had passed both the House and Senate previously, but because of a drafting error, where the Senate didn’t make a shell bill and instead originated what amounts to a tax bill (because of some revenue-raisers in the measure), which is unconstitutional, the House couldn’t pass the Senate’s bill. So this bill, passed by both houses of Congress, still had an unclear avenue for passage.

Now, the Republicans could see that a bill which got 73 votes in the Senate would clearly pass, and forgive the error by fast-tracking a new version through the chamber. But the demons of obstructionism, led by Tom Coburn, wouldn’t allow that. Weeks have been spent already breaking filibusters on the food safety bill, and with competing priorities, the Senate couldn’t see its way clear to wasting more time.

So would there be another opportunity for the bill? Senate leadership aides tell FDL News that they will try to include the bill in their version of a continuing resolution. The Senate’s continuing resolution would only fund the government through February 18, in all likelihood, giving the more conservative incoming Congress an early opportunity to slash federal spending. But the Senate leadership does want to move that along with the food safety bill.

The question becomes whether all Republicans agree to that, or whether they force a fight on the bill – which would lead to at least a temporary government shutdown. The tea party movement really wants this fight, and with cattle-state Coburn itching for a fight even if it’s ultimately fruitless, I could easily see him object to this. The Senate would presumably have the votes to pass it, but it could take a few days, and the government runs out of money on Saturday. Clearly they want to pass something quickly with unanimous consent.

At the absolute minimum, the food safety bill should be included as at least a small measure of progress in exchange for giving away the ability to set FY 2011 budget priorities to the next Congress. But it’s still not clear whether that can move quickly.

Again, with rules reform and a more functional Senate, the decks would be more cleared to actually fight out this issue.

David Dayen

David Dayen