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House Debates Funding Cuts For Food Safety, Nutrition Programs

Trying to keep the purse strings tied up tightly is the name of the game for House GOP leaders today as the House of Representatives debates an agriculture appropriations bill that would cut funding for nutrition programs and food safety.

In a bit of a twist, the House is allowing votes on amendments, so the floor debate could last hours, if not a day or two, congressional aides predict.

And, despite concerns that some of the bill's cuts would impact key domestic programs, the White House is not so far threatening to veto the bill.

A key debate is shaping up over the bill's proposed $650 million in cuts to the normally bipartisan Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. The administration's official word is "these cuts sould undermine efforts to prevent hunger and support sound nutrition for some of the most vulnerable members of our society."

Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, put it more bluntly. "This is a pro-hunger bill," he said in his opening remarks on the floor. "These are real cuts that will do damage to real people," he added.

The liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that up to 350,000 eligible women and children could lose access to the program under the House bill.

But Republicans say too much money is wasted on administering these programs and that there are other ways for these women to get help. Agriculture Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, says that the cuts are necessary and fiscally responsible.

"We have to reign in spending, even if it may not be the most popular thing to do," he said during the debate. The bill passed his committee late last month.

The bill would also fund FDA's food safety budget at $87 million below last year's levels, just as the agency prepares to implement a slew of new regulations to deal with things like E. coli outbreaks.

The House spending bill would also cut about $35 million from USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service.

It would also zero out an Obama pet project to fight obesity, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

Meanwhile, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee hasn't yet drafted its own bill, so it may be awhile before the total funding picture for agriculture shakes out.

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April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.