WASHINGTON – The man who led passage of the first law regulating horse soring 44 years ago blamed Kentucky and Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday for blocking a new bill to shore up that act.
Former Sen. Joseph Tydings, D-Md., the lead sponsor of the 1970 Horse Protection Act, said "one very powerful senator from Kentucky" was blocking the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act from coming to a vote in the Senate.
Tydings made his remark, a clear reference to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., while addressing a rally of about 75 walking horse enthusiasts and animal rights activists in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool.
McConnell is co-sponsoring alternative legislation introduced by Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander. But groups such as the Humane Society of the United States criticize Alexander's bill for allowing the industry to continue to regulate itself.
A key provision of the PAST Act is a significant increase in Department of Agriculture inspectors, paid for with assessments on horse-show managers.
Widely seen as cruel, soring involves the use of caustic chemicals, chains, special pads and other devices on a walking horse's legs and hooves to produce an artificially high step, also known as the "Big Lick."
In talking to reporters afterward, Tydings, 86, also took aim at Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood.
"I know she's doing everything possible (to block it)," Tydings said. "She will take credit for it."
Dan Cramer of Clarksville, a Democrat running for Blackburn's 7th Congressional District seat, attended the rally and also blamed her.
"She's been telling her fellow lawmakers that the PAST Act will never leave committee," Cramer said.
Blackburn has her own bill to address soring but critics say it also largely leaves the industry to police itself.
Meanwhile, the House version of the PAST Act, introduced by Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, has 291 co-sponsors but remains stalled in the Energy and Commerce Committee, where Blackburn is vice-chairman. The Tennessee representative has 12 co-sponsors for her bill.
Asked about whether she was blocking Whitfield's bill, Blackburn spokesman Mike Reynard said, "Congresswoman Blackburn is focused on her own legislation and is open to all ideas."
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, whose 4th Congressional District is home to the walking horse industry in Tennessee, backs Blackburn's bill.
"Certainly, there must be sufficient measures in place to protect the welfare of these horses. However, simply expanding federal bureaucracy and allowing the USDA to inconsistently police an industry where there is less than 2 percent of a problem is not the answer," DesJarlais said in a statement.
In the Senate, the PAST Act cleared the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in April but has yet to receive a floor vote. Individual senators can easily block bills from moving forward.
"At some point, the public is going to want to know what is going on with this bill and why it is not moving," said Keith Dane, who handles equine issues for the Humane Society.
The Senate version has 55 co-sponsors, mostly Democrats, the most recent addition being Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. Republican co-sponsors include Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Susan Collins of Maine.
In contrast, Alexander's bill has only four co-sponsors.
Another criticism of Alexander's alternative is that it permits continued use of "action devices" to inflict pain on horses.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Wednesday he wants to see if a Senate committee will review Alexander's bill before he decides whether to support it or the PAST Act.
"I don't want to see any animals mistreated and support efforts to deter horse abuse," Corker said in a statement.
On display at Wednesday's rally were six walking horses, including some from Tennessee. Riders put them through various gaits common to the breed to demonstrate that they can be trained without soring.
Whitfield, meanwhile, held up examples of "stacks" and "pads" and said bluntly, "We're here because we want to stop this."