WASHINGTON — Federal meat inspectors facing sequester-induced furloughs would remain on the job under a provision offered by U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., to a $1 trillion spending bill meant to avert a government shutdown that cleared the Senate on Wednesday.
The Senate voted 73-26 in favor of legislation that would keep the government operating through the end of September. The vote came after the Senate adopted several amendments, including one by Pryor aimed at avoiding furloughs of meat inspectors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"After much hard work, I’m pleased to see that the Senate has unanimously approved our amendment," Pryor said. "By solving this funding gap, we’ve been able to protect private sector jobs, keep food prices affordable and help nearly 40,000 employees in my state alone."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had indicated that furloughing food safety inspectors might be necessary for his agency to achieve savings required under mandatory across-the-board cuts included in a 2011 congressional deal to raise the debt ceiling. USDA needs to reduce its budget by $2 billion.
Arkansas could be hit particularly hard if the 6,000 meat safety inspectors face furloughs because poultry and other processors cannot operate without them in the plant.
Pryor teamed with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., to offer an amendment that adds about $55 million to the Food Safety Inspection Service to ensure food inspectors are not furloughed. The additional funds were taken out of other USDA programs — deferring some building maintenance projects and eliminating new enhancements to the school breakfast program, Pryor said.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said he supported the amendment.
"I’m committed to preserving the safety and security of our nation’s food supply. This amendment will meet the needs and demands of American consumers while providing the flexibility to maintain food inspectors and carrying out responsible deficit reduction," Boozman said.
The Senate rejected an amendment Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., tried to introduce that would have given the Federal Aviation Administration the ability to keep air traffic controllers contracted to operate at some local airports, including those in Springdale, Fayetteville and Rogers.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced plans to save $600 million by shutting 100 air traffic control towers at small airports, eliminating overnight shifts at 60 towers and furloughing 47,000 employees at least one day a pay period.
The $1 trillion funding bill returns to the House where it is expected to be approved with the Senate amendments and sent to President Obama for his signature in time to avoid a partial shutdown of the federal government that would otherwise occur after March 27.
The Senate bill would fund the government through the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30.