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After delays, final vote set for child nutrition bill

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 7:42 AM

A central component of first lady Michelle Obama's anti-childhood obesity platform is set to get an up-or-down vote on the House floor Thursday, after delays prompted by opposition from lawmakers on both ends of the political spectrum.

The "Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act," would expand the number of kids in school lunch programs, increase the reimbursement rate for meals, and eliminate junk food.

It passed the Senate unanimously in August, but stalled in the House, with many Democrats concerned that the $4.5 billion expansion would be funded in part but cutting back the federal food stamp program.

The White House promised to restore those cuts, and the bill was scheduled for a vote Wednesday. But it was snatched off the docket by Democrats after Republicans tried to amend the bill--adding language that would bar federal funds to facilities that hire workers who refuse or lie on sex offender background checks.

That change--or any other-- would kick the bill back to the Senate for a new vote--possibly during the next Congress, when Republicans will control the House. Passage, on the other hand, would send the bill directly to the White House for President Obama's signature.

After some scrambling, Democratic House leaders decided that the background-check amendment, offered by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), would be voted on as a separate bill on Thursday.

"It is disappointing that Republicans decided to pull a political stunt to delay passage of this bill at the expense of the deserving children who need healthy meals," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the leading Democrat on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement. "I look forward to completing action on this critical legislation [Thursday] and sending it to the President's desk for his signature."

Kline called the move "nothing more than a cynical ploy to prevent members of Congress from legislating."

Michelle Obama has been keeping an eye on the bill's progress, working with the White House Legislative Affairs office. She made a push for the bill in a Monday phone call with 5,000 faith leaders that kicked off an effort to get churches involved with her nutrition and exercise initiative, and spoke to Democratic lawmakers about it on Tuesday.

Launched in February 2010, Obama's "Let's Move" program has enjoyed the support of large corporations and has mostly drawn broad bipartisan support. She toured Mississippi with Gov. Haley Barbour (R) to tout the program, and also appeared on the Fox News program hosted by former Republican governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

But Republican gains in the mid-term elections seem to have given new life to the bill's GOP critics, with lawmakers like Kline chafing at cost and "food mandates," and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin calling Obama's initiative an example of government over-reaching.

"Members of the U.S. House of Representatives - Republicans and Democrats alike - have been completely shut out of the legislative process of extending and improving child nutrition programs," Kline said in a statement. "This legislation, which dramatically increases federal spending and food mandates, has not received a single House committee hearing or vote."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday extolled the legislation as important for children and for the nation as a whole. "It will strengthen our competitiveness," Pelosi said, referring to the number of Americans who could not serve in the military because they are too heavy. "It will improve our military readiness."

The bill, Pelosi continued, "will honor our commitment to our children. And it does so in a fiscally responsible way -- improving the efficiency and effectiveness of federal child nutrition initiatives and ultimately saving the taxpayer money."

Palin said Obama is "telling us is she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children, for their own families, in what we should eat." The self-described "mama grizzly" recently showed up at a Pennsylvania school with a plate of cookies to protest that state's move to cut out junk food in schools.

"I know I'm going to be criticized for bringing this up," Palin said in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. "But instead of a government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions according to some politician or politician's wife's priorities--just leave us alone. Get off our back, and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions, and then our country gets back on the right track."

Rarely have the efforts of a first lady drawn such scrutiny or fire, according to Myra Gutin, a historian at Rider University who studies presidential spouses.

"Given the level of civility during the midterms, little would surprise me," Gutin said. "Let's say that Michelle gets aggravation during the [2012] campaign for 'Let's Move.' She could face her critics and ask, 'What is it about eating healthfully and exercising that you object to?' "

Asked about Palin's critiques, Obama said that government and parents have a role to play in curbing childhood obesity, and that the issue "transcends politics."

"We've always said throughout this campaign that this, solving this problem is going to take all of us," Obama said in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters . "Parents, families, communities have the largest impact on how kids think about anything, particularly what they eat. But ultimately it requires all of us."

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

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