This vote was on whether to begin debate on a bill that would overhaul the nation’s food safety laws and expand the enforcement powers of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), including allowing the agency to order food recalls and to more strictly oversee the safety of imported food.
Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at present, the government has no legal authority to force groceries to remove contaminated items from their shelves, but that would change under the bill at hand.
“The best we can do is advertise the fact that it is dangerous and hope that the manufacturer, the distributor, and the ultimate retailer will get the message and move on it and do the right thing. It is voluntary. It is not mandatory, even if we know that something is dangerous. This bill gives that authority to the Food and Drug Administration. That means that if a company refuses to recall contaminated food, the most expedient action the FDA can take is to issue a press release right away, and we have to get beyond that,” Durbin said.
Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said food safety is “of primary importance,” but that the bill itself is problematic. Chambliss said it is particularly harmful for small farmers. The bill would grant an exemption for some small farmers, but Chambliss said the definition of a small farmer needs work.
“But the definition currently in the bill is that a small farmer is determined to be a farmer with gross receipts smaller than $500,000. Well, unfortunately, or fortunately, in my part of the world, cotton today is selling at $1.50 a pound. A bale is 500 pounds. It doesn’t take many bales to reach $500,000 in gross receipts from the sale of cotton, and that doesn’t count peanuts and wheat and corn and whatever else may go along with it. So trying to put an arbitrary number such as that, and saying if you have gross receipts in excess of that number the FDA has the authority to come on your farm, but if you have less than that they do not have the authority, I think it is not the proper way to go,” Chambliss said.
Democrats promised to work with farm-state senators to work on the small farms language in exchange for allowing this vote to take place.
Typically bills are brought to the floor of the Senate through a procedural motion called a “motion to proceed,” which is usually approved by voice vote as a routine matter. However, if a senator wants to hold up consideration, all he or she has to do is remove consent – which was the case with this bill. Instead, the Democratic leadership called a vote on beginning debate on the bill. This was necessary because Republicans had threatened to hold up the bill’s consideration indefinitely with a filibuster, causing Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., to file what is known as a “cloture motion,” which, in essence, is a vote on bringing debate on a bill or amendment to a close, which is what this vote was on.
By a vote of 74-25, the motion to bring debate to a close on whether to open the bill for debate was adopted. All but one Democrat present voted to bring debate to a close and begin debating the bill. Of Republicans present, 16 voted to bring debate to a close and begin debating the bill, and 24 voted against bringing debate to a close. The end result is that the Senate voted to bring debate to a close on whether to begin debating a bill that would overhaul food safety laws and give the FDA more enforcement authority. The Senate then proceeded to a vote on officially opening debate on the bill itself (see vote 251).