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Election results raise hope for immigration reform, but still leaves farm bill in doubt

WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s election may not affect the 2012 Farm Bill debate, the produce industry’s most pressing legislative priority slated for this week’s lame duck session, but it will have implications for food safety, immigration reform and environmental regulations down the road, experts told The Produce News.

President Obama won re-election and nearly every battleground state, the Democrats maintained control of the Senate and the Republicans kept majority control of the House of Representatives.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), a champion for specialty crop businesses, won her seat by 56 percent and will remain chair of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee.

The Michigan senator is expected to play a key role in determining whether Congress can pass a five-year farm bill when Congress returns to Washington, DC, next week to grapple with highly contentious budget issues. Farm bill advocates fear, however, that Congress may pass a one-year extension, leaving the task to the next Congress to start again and write a new farm bill.

The heavy turnout of Hispanic voters for President Obama, one of the headlines from Tuesday’s election, may create a window of opportunity next year for immigration reform, said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh Produce Association.

“The election is a wakeup call in the Republican party on the role of Hispanics,” he said, adding that it may lead both parties to come to middle ground on immigration reform. Mr. Stenzel predicted Republicans will be actively engaged on immigration issue and begin talking to the White House on the issue next year.

Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, congratulated President Obama on his re-election and said he hoped he engages in “real bipartisanship to get the country moving again.”

Mr. Nassif said he also hopes President Obama follows through with his pledge to take up immigration reform, and that the administration helps the agriculture industry with problems in delivering health care to agricultural workers under the new healthcare reform law.

The Obama victory also means stacks of federal regulations that have been bottled up at the White House will be released in the coming weeks.

“On the regulatory side, we will see an onslaught of proposed rules coming out,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at United Fresh Produce Association. “We will be watching the Federal Register very closely.”

The Food & Drug Administration’s food-safety regulations that would set up new produce safety standards, preventive controls for food plants and foreign supplier verification rules, some of which have been languishing for nearly a year at the Office of Management and Budget, are expected to be released soon.  

Mr. Nassif said California voters defeated Proposition 37 that would require the food industry to label genetically engineered foods, but the measure also would have barred the use of “natural’ on processed fruit and vegetable labels.

The election also left the California senate and assembly dominated by Democrats, which will allow lawmakers to raise taxes and override governor vetoes, he added.