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Ag-FDA sets stage for spending bill battle

Victoria Knight
Sep 12, 2023

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Senate this week is set to bring the Agriculture-FDA appropriations bill to the floor as part of a "minibus" and in the process, preview how difficult it could be to reconcile major health policy differences with the House.

The big picture: While the chambers have slightly different ideas about funding the FDA, it's the controversial policy riders in the House bill dealing with abortion pills and menthol cigarettes that will probably cause the biggest conflict.

  • The Senate took a bipartisan approach to the appropriations process, unanimously passing its package out of Appropriations while the House advanced its version out of committee along party lines.
  • That doesn't necessarily guarantee a smooth ride this week. Senate Republicans are expected to offer amendments that could add time and surface new friction points.

By the numbers: The FDA was funded at a level of $6.56 billion in FY 2023 and President Biden asked for $7.2 billion for the agency in his 2024 budget request.

  • Senate appropriators settled on $6.63 billion, including a $20 million boost for the FDA$7 million of which is slotted for the first time oversight of cosmetics.
  • The House bill funds the FDA at at relatively similar level to FY 2023 — $6.58 billion.
  • But Agriculture Department would face an $8 billion cut from FY 2023 levels, which could cause acrimony.

Don't forget: Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden agreed during the debt ceiling debate to keep spending levels relatively flat in 2024.

  • Despite that deal, House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger said she would craft appropriations bills at FY 2022 levels, and House Freedom Caucus members have pushed for cutting spending to the FY 2022 topline number.

What we're watching: The House bill also includes controversial language that would overturn the FDA's policy allowing the widely used abortion drug mifepristone to be sold by mail and at retail pharmacies. It would instead return the pill to in-person dispensing requirements.

  • The rider was part of the reason the Ag-FDA bill was pulled from the House floor schedule right before the August recess, with some moderate Republicans expressing concern about backing such a provision.
  • The Freedom Caucus, including Ag-FDA Appropriations Chair Andy Harris, has insisted the mifepristone measure remain in the bill.
  • There's also another contentious provision that would prohibit the FDA from banning menthol or setting a maximum level for nicotine in cigarettes. The agency proposed a menthol ban in 2022 but then missed an August deadline to finalize a rule.

Flashback: President Biden said in July that he would veto the House bill if it made it to his desk, due to the mifepristone and menthol riders, as well as the reduced funding for the USDA.

What they're saying: How lawmakers iron out the differences remains to be seen, though it can be assumed that the Senate will be a no-go on any anti-abortion measures.

  • "We spent a lot of time and a lot of late nights and early mornings negotiating serious bills which can actually be signed into law and which actually follow the bipartisan debt limit deal," Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray said at last week's Senate Democrat press conference. "We have provided a clear bipartisan road map to fund the government under extremely difficult constraints."
  • "I think the bill that we put together over here is very bipartisan, and that is reflected. It's the bill, that can, frankly, make its way to the president's desk," Sen. Martin Heinrich, chair of the Senate Ag-FDA appropriations subcommittee, told Axios last week.
  • "We just have to work that out down the road with the House, which has a very different version," Heinrich added.

What's next: The Senate will start the first step of the process with a procedural vote to move the bills forward on Tuesday afternoon.

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