Senate Passes $100B Agriculture, Drug Bill

The Senate passed a $100 billion spending bill for agriculture, food and drug programs, averting debate over emergency contraception and other controversies.

"This is not the last word on this issue," said Sen. Patty Murray (search), D-Wash., who had sought to cut millions of dollars from the Food and Drug Administration's budget because of its refusal to allow over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill called Plan B.

"The FDA is letting politics trump science in the way it approves medicines for the American consumer," Murray said.

Senators ultimately decided not to offer controversial amendments from Murray and others, sparing colleagues from having to vote on issues that might make their re-elections next year more difficult.

The vote for the bill was 97-2, with Sen. John Ensign (search), R-Nev., and Sen. John Sununu (search), R-N.H., voting no.

Now, congressional negotiators must work out differences in House and Senate versions of the spending bill, which funds the Agriculture Department, FDA and related agencies.

Absent from the bill is a $3.1 billion spending cut for farm programs that Congress ordered earlier this year. Agriculture committees plan to decide next month how to make the cut.

The Senate did pass several amendments, among them:

— A measure to keep Kobe beef off U.S. menus if Japan won't buy American beef. Senators want to retaliate against Japan, once a $1.5 billion-a-year customer of U.S. beef, for refusing to lift a mad cow-related ban. Sen. Ben Nelson (search), D-Neb., said two U.S. cases, compared to 20 in Japan, mean that mad cow disease is statistically nonexistent in this country.

— An amendment by Sen. Daniel Akaka (search), D-Hawaii, retaining a ban on "downer" cattle — those unable to walk — in the food supply. The Agriculture Department has a temporary ban on downer cattle, which are considered high-risk and are tested for mad cow disease.

— A measure delaying an Agriculture Department proposal to consolidate local Farm Service Agency offices. A plan outlined in a "working document" obtained by The Associated Press would close 665 of 2,353 offices nationwide. Department officials say the numbers are inaccurate and that their goal is better service, not closing offices. Sen. Jim Talent (search), R-Mo., said he agrees service should improve, but not at the expense of farmers who already drive 30 to 40 minutes to get to the nearest office.

• An amendment by Ensign banning the slaughter of wild horses to be sold as meat to foreign countries. Congress repealed the 34-year-old ban in December.

• A requirement that FDA more widely disclose conflicts of interest by members of its advisory panel. Sen. Richard Durbin (search), D-Ill., said he's worried about FDA waiving conflicts of interest for scientists with financial ties to drug manufacturers.