WASHINGTON, March 20 U.S. Senators agreed to
shift $55 million in funds within the Agriculture Department on
Wednesday to avert the layoff of all U.S. meat inspectors this
summer due to federal budget cuts.
On a voice vote, the Senate adopted the amendment as part of
a government-wide funding bill and later sent the bill to the
House on a 73-26 roll call. The House was expected to vote on
the bill on Thursday.
"If it gets passed, we will apply it," Agriculture Secretary
Tom Vilsack told reporters on Tuesday. Otherwise, he said, there
was no way to avoid furloughs of all 8,400 inspectors for a
total of 11 days.
Senator Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, said by shifting the
money, "we've been able to protect private sector jobs, keep
food prices affordable, and help nearly 40,000 employees in my
In Chicago, Joe Ocrant, president of Oak Investment Group,
said "Whether it passes or not it shows that the government will
find the money to not disrupt meat production in the United
Meat packers and processors would have to close plants
during a furlough because they cannot operate without USDA
inspectors on the scene. Billions of dollars in production could
be lost in a lengthy furlough.
The bipartisan amendment was cosponsored by Missouri
Republican Roy Blunt. Pryor and Blunt are the leaders of the
Senate subcommittee that oversees the USDA's budget.
Chicago Mercantile Exchange live cattle futures closed
higher after being lower early, but investors said the rebound
had more to do with the oversold condition of the market and
less about Senate's decision on Wednesday.
"Over the last week the industry has worked extremely hard
to get Congress to understand this issue and it appears to have
made some progress," Jim Robb, director of the Colorado-based
Livestock Marketing Information Center, said of the meat
"The lack of understanding by USDA of the implications are
apparent," he said.
The Obama administration says the automatic spending cuts
that took effect on March 1 cut so deeply into the meat safety
agency that all of its workers would be furloughed.
To ease the impact of furloughs, USDA officials said
inspectors would be idled on non-consecutive days nationwide
from mid-July to the end of September. The time span would mean
roughly one day off work each week.