Food safety groups are ramping up pressure on Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski over language included in a government funding bill that would make it harder for courts to block the planting of genetically engineered crops.
The language, tucked into appropriations legislation to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, would strip courts of the power to halt the planting of such crops if a judge felt a review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's approval was warranted over health or environmental concerns.
Critics have referred to the language as the "Monsanto rider" in reference to the massive, Missouri-based agribusiness.
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Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who was named the Senate Appropriations Committee chair in December, is under fire for allowing the language into the broader funding bill that her committee oversees. In a statement, a Mikulski spokeswoman said it wasn't the senator who added the language -- an assessment at least one food safety advocate agreed with.
"The American public have relied on Senate Democrats to be a backstop against dangerous policy riders like this," said Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety. "We call on [Mikulski] to ensure that this rider is stricken from any future appropriations bills."
But, O'Neil added, the language did not originate with Mikulski. Rather, it was included in legislation that had been developed before she took the chairmanship. Democratic leaders, including Mikulski, were under pressure to pass a funding a bill quickly as Democrats and Republicans in Congress were eager to demonstrate they could deal with a budget deadline without creating the type of fiscal showdown that has defined the last several years.
Congress had until March 27 to pass a funding bill or shut down the government.
Mikulski picked up the previously agreed-to language and attached it, largely unchanged, to the funding legislation. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, offered an amendment to strike the language from the bill but that amendment never received a vote.
"Her hands were tied by the negotiations that had previously happened," O'Neil said of Mikulski. "We recognize that the tough spot she was in."
O'Neil said food safety groups nevertheless hope to keep the pressure on Mikulski to get the language removed later this year, when the government must pass its next round of funding legislation.
In a statement, Mikulski's office said the senator "understands the anger over this provision. She didn’t put the language in the bill and doesn’t support it, either."
"Senator Mikulski has a strong food safety record," the statement read. "As chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Mikulski's first responsibility was to prevent a government shutdown. That meant she had to compromise on many of her own priorities to get a bill through the Senate that the House would pass."
The Democrat-led Senate approved the stop-gap budget measure last week on a 73-26 vote. The GOP-controlled House moved the bill on a bipartisan vote the next day and President Barack Obama signed it on Tuesday.