House votes to send child nutrition bill to President Obama

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:21 AM

The Democrat-led House voted Thursday to send President Obama a bill that would enable more poor children to receive free meals at school, raise the nutritional quality of cafeteria fare and reduce the junk food and sugary beverages sold in school vending machines.

The bill, which cleared the Senate in the summer, won House approval on a 264 to 157 vote. Seventeen Republicans broke party ranks to join Democrats in favor of the bill. Four Democrats were opposed.

The bill, a priority for the president and first lady Michelle Obama, would boost spending on child nutrition $4.5 billion over 10 years and raise federal reimbursements for school lunches more than the inflation rate for the first time since 1973. It also would require for the first time that free drinking water be available where meals are served.

The bill accelerates the budding healthful-food movement in public education - think whole wheat pizza with lowfat cheese and low-sodium sauce - but leaves unanswered key questions about whether schools can afford to give tens of millions of students better meals.

Democrats took steps to offset the bill's costs, including a $2.2 billion cut to food stamp benefits for needy families. Those maneuvers, reflecting political pressures to avoid adding to the budget deficit, caused many Democrats to wince even as they voted for the bill because it would effectively shift funds from one anti-hunger program to another.

House Republicans opposed the bill as a needless expansion of government by the lame-duck Congress weeks after voters punished Democrats at the polls. National groups representing school administrators and boards also were opposed, calling the bill an unfunded mandate that would strain strapped school budgets.

But the Senate approved the bill through unanimous consent in August. It had strong backing from an array of groups seeking to improve child nutrition and has become part of the first lady's campaign against childhood obesity and hunger.

For House Democrats, approval of the bill marked a show of force a month before they cede the gavel to a new Republican majority.

"In a country as great as ours, no child should go hungry," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said Wednesday. But he added that many do. "We cannot afford to let that continue."

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the incoming committee chairman, said Democrats were flouting the will of the voters. " 'Stop growing government,' people are telling us," Kline said. " 'Stop spending money we do not have.' It's a simple request and a sensible one. Yet it continues to be ignored."

Republicans proposed Wednesday to amend the bill, including a requirement for background checks for certain child-care providers, and thereby force another vote in the Senate that would jeopardize the bill's chances of becoming law.

To neutralize that threat, Democratic leaders staged a vote on - and passed - a separate measure that mirrored elements of the Republican proposal. Then they muscled the nutrition bill, unamended, through its final vote.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company