A bill to allow prescription drug imports (search) narrowly cleared a House subcommittee Monday as a last-minute amendment that caught the panel's chairman by surprise.

The measure introduced by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, passed the Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on agriculture 8-6 as part of a bill to fund the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration (search).

The proposal by the panel's ranking Democrat would prevent the FDA from spending funds to bar imports such as those from Canada, where government price controls have made many prescription drugs cheaper than they are in the United States.

The White House has not supported legalizing such imports, and the FDA has said it cannot guarantee the foreign products' safety. However, proposals have been getting bipartisan support in Congress. Republicans in the Senate also have proposed a drug importation plan, and a measure passed the House last year.

The amendment approved by the subcommittee would allow people "to access safe prescription drugs," Kaptur said. "The costs of prescription drugs are going up."

Kaptur's proposal and her timing - as the last item before a vote on the overall funding measure - drew fire from subcommittee chairman Henry Bonilla, R-Texas. "I would like to state my strong opposition," he said. "The subcommittee has tried to work very closely as a group to try to let each other know about issues, and quite frankly we are blindsided by this."

Bonilla's call for a voice vote ended in his declaration that Kaptur's amendment had failed. But on her request for a roll call, the measure was approved, with Republicans JoAnn Emerson of Missouri, Jack Kingston of Georgia and Virgil Goode of Virginia voting with five Democrats. Rep. Sam Farr of California was the only Democrat to vote against the proposal.

Immediately after the vote on the drug plan, Bonilla called for a voice vote on the overall funding measure, which was approved.

The measure calls for $16.8 billion in discretionary spending by FDA and the Agriculture Department, about what the Bush administration proposed.

For the Agriculture Department, the measure would fund the Food Safety and Inspection Service (search), which inspects meat at slaughterhouses, at $825 million, $14 million below the administration's request. It would allocate $814 million, $20 million below the administration's proposal, to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (search), which checks for disease. But the measure allows the administration the full $60 million requested to fight mad cow disease.