Mad Cow Disease Won't Slow Spending Bill

The first case of mad cow disease (search) in the United States is generating an "I told you so" from some lawmakers, but the initial concern doesn't appear strong enough to reopen a giant spending bill financing much of the government.

Fear that the disease might surface here prompted the Senate to vote last month to halt the marketing of meat from animals too old or too ill to stand or walk unassisted, such as the mad cow-infected Holstein (search) slaughtered in Washington state Dec. 9.

But Republican leaders on Capitol Hill that same day stripped the prohibition from a $373 billion spending bill that later passed the House and awaits Senate action when Congress returns in January.

A Senate vote on the bill, which finances the Agriculture Department (search) and most other federal agencies, was delayed by Democrats angry over GOP leaders chopping out other popular measures that had won votes in the Senate and often in the House.

Biggest among them were provisions blocking the Bush administration from removing overtime guarantees (search) for many white-collar workers and requiring meat products to carry country-of origin labels (search) despite opposition from large meatpackers. Another measure deleted at the insistence of the White House would have made Viacom Inc., which owns CBS and UPN, and News Corp., owner of Fox, sell off some TV stations.

The discovery this week of the Washington state cow with mad cow disease has some lawmakers demanding that Congress take another look at banning meat from sick livestock for human consumption.

The Agriculture Department estimates that 130,000 downed animals are slaughtered every year. Farmers usually sell their sick and injured animals to meat renderers who grind them up into pet food and animal feed.

"We are going to come back with a vengeance," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., whose measure to adopt such a ban was defeated on a 199-202 vote in the House last July. Ackerman this week reminded lawmakers that he had told them then they would "rue the day" they let the industry's greed "sacrifice the safety of the American people."

But without some dramatic development between now and when Congress returns Jan. 20, there is little indication that the mad cow case might be a tipping point for reopening the big spending bill.

Senate GOP leaders have scheduled a vote for the first day of the new session to end Democratic delays and pass the bill. It wasn't certain, even before the mad cow case, that the Republicans have the 60 votes needed.

However, any attempt to change the bill could lead to its demise and result in retaining 2003 funding levels through next September, nullifying Democratic-supported spending increases for programs covering schools, veterans, highways, AIDS in Africa and crimefighting.

Rep. Harry Bonilla, R-Texas, chairman of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, said "I can't imagine that it would be" reopened. But he added, "I've been in Washington long enough to know that nothing is ever done until it's done."

Senior Senate Democrats also took a wait-and-see stance.

"If the USDA (Department of Agriculture) takes effective action as I expect they will, then nothing will happen in the omnibus," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., an appropriations committee member.

In detecting the animal with possible mad cow disease, "our system worked, and it worked immediately and effectively," said Dorgan, who hails from a big beef-producing state.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, in a statement, asked only that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman keep Congress informed, saying she should "continue to handle this isolated, presumptive-positive case in a thoughtful, professional and science-based manner."

Ackerman expressed less confidence in the Agriculture Department. He said they are still "ducking and hiding and whitewashing" the issue of sick animals. He added that the department "doesn't need me or the U.S. Congress to ban this. They can ban this themselves."