WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators agreed to shift $55 million in funds within the Agriculture Department on Wednesday to avert the layoff of all 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 state alone."
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.
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.
Reporting By Charles Abbott and Richard Cowan; Editing by Kenneth Barry