A pleasant surprise for Americans who eat food

A PLEASANT SURPRISE FOR AMERICANS WHO EAT FOOD…. By all appearances, a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food-safety system, approved by both chambers with bipartisan support, was dead just 24 hours ago. It’s why last night’s unexpected breakthrough was an early Christmas present for Americans who eat food.

A bill that would overhaul the nation’s food-safety laws for the first time since the Great Depression came roaring back to life Sunday as Senate Democrats struck a deal with Republicans that helped overcome a technical mistake made three weeks ago and a filibuster threat that seemed likely to scuttle the legislation.

After a weekend of negotiations, tense strategy sessions and several premature predictions about the bill’s demise, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) reached a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the GOP would not filibuster.

Without notice and in a matter of minutes Sunday evening, the Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent, sending it to the House, where passage is expected. President Obama has said he would sign the legislation, which would give the government far-reaching authority to set and enforce safety standards for farmers and food processors.

This isn’t the year’s sexiest piece of legislation, but it deserves more attention. The bill expands the FDA’s ability to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies, and oversee farming — all in the hopes of cracking down on unsafe food before consumers get sick. This is the first time Congress has approved an overhaul of food-safety laws in 70 years.

It passed the Senate with 73 votes a few weeks ago, but Senate Democrats made a technical mistake in the writing of the legislation. They intended to fix it by inserting the bill’s language into the omnibus, but when that was scuttled, the measure’s fate appeared sealed.

Under normal circumstances, the fact that the legislation has broad bipartisan support in both chambers would mean the Senate could just reapprove the bill by unanimous agreement. But far-right opponents of the food-safety bill, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), said they’d force Dems to start over — taking a week to jump through the procedural hoops. There was no time for that, which is why the legislation appeared to have no chance.

But last night, out of the blue, opponents yielded, and the Senate passed the bill again by unanimous consent. Why did Coburn and his allies relent? No one seems to know for sure, but we can all be glad he did. The legislation now heads to the House, where approval should be easy, and then to President Obama, who looks forward to signing it into law.

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, responded, “This reaffirmed my faith in democracy.”

When drawing up lists of major Democratic accomplishments of the last two years, I hope folks won’t forget this one — it’s likely to make a big difference.