The House is poised to pass a bill Friday lightening Obamacare's new calorie-labeling rules, a requirement that has pitted grocery and convenience stores against restaurants.
The bipartisan measure, co-sponsored by fourth-ranking House Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, exempts more establishments from the mandate and softens it for others, giving them more options for listing caloric information about their menu items.
President Obama's 2010 Affordable Care Act made menu labeling federal law, in an effort to help nudge down the nation's high obesity rate. But it largely left it up to the Food and Drug Administration to detail how food sellers must fall in line.
The White House said this week it opposes the McMorris Rodgers-Sanchez bill, but to supporters, it makes the playing field fairer for smaller businesses and establishments that sell items besides food. The FDA interpreted the requirements far too expansively, they argue.
"The FDA is taking it way beyond what was ever intended in the Affordable Care Act," McMorris Rodgers told the Washington Examiner on Thursday. "Then we got into the local delis, the salad bars, the grocery stores being pulled under regulation that they didn't realize or didn't support when the ACA was being put into place."
The measure, which is likely to pass, will represent more than 70 times the House has voted to repeal or modify the president's healthcare law.
The requirements apply to chain restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, movie theaters and certain other businesses that sell prepared food and have 20 or more locations. The House bill would provide more flexibility for how those establishments display caloric information.
Restaurants that primarily serve customers through remote ordering, such as pizza chains, could satisfy the requirements by posting caloric information online. So could other establishments such as grocery stores, for food offered at salad bars and other prepared food items. They also would have the option of listing calories on one menu board or on a flier, instead of putting labels on individual items.
The bill originally contained a section exempting establishments that derive fewer than 50 percent of their total revenue from the sale of food, including most movie theaters and convenience stores, but that was removed from the measure when it passed the Energy and Commerce Committee in November.
The industry is divided over the new requirements, with some welcoming one national standard. The National Restaurant Association supports the requirements laid out by the FDA, with spokesman Christin Fernandez saying the group is "confident" the agency will address concerns as they arise.
"We have supported the nationwide federal menu-labeling standard, as we believe it is important for consumers to have access to uniform nutritional information when dining out," she said.
Neither the restaurant group nor the International Franchise Association have taken a position on the McMorris Rodgers-Sanchez bill. It has been endorsed, however, by the National Grocers Association and the National Association of Convenience Stores, which argue it would be hardest for their members to comply under current rules.
The FDA has already delayed when the requirements would take effect, saying last year that establishments don't have to comply until Dec. 1, 2016. The spending bill Congress passed last year could further postpone them by requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to publish what is known as "level one guidance" before they go into effect.
McMorris Rodgers acknowledges that some people do appreciate having caloric information available to them, but says the way the mandate is being rolled out poses excessive costs for smaller businesses.
"This legislation really isn't about arguing the merits of menu labeling," she said. "It's really focused on making this information available in a consumer-friendly way."
The measure is one of the more bipartisan proposals to modify Obamacare, with seven Democrats in addition to Sanchez signing on as co-sponsors and still more likely to vote for the bill.
But the White House issued a statement this week saying it opposes the legislation because it would "undercut the objective of providing clear, consistent calorie information to consumers." The bill, it said, would create "customer confusion" by introducing variability into how establishments list calories.
However, the statement stops short of saying President Obama would veto the bill. McMorris Rodgers said she takes that as a hopeful sign.
"If the president vetoes this bipartisan legislation, I would just submit that it is another example of him standing by federal bureaucrats that have become disconnected from their mission instead of standing by individuals," she said.