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Senate Passes Funding Bill, But Sequester Burden Still Heavy

CR saves funding for food safety inspections, though Vilsack says sequester cuts will still be evident

Published on: Mar 21, 2013

The Senate voted 73-26 late Wednesday afternoon to pass its Continuing Resolution, avoiding a government shutdown and funding operations through Sept. 30.

"This is an important step in breaking from crisis mode in Washington," said Senate Committee on Appropriations Vice Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "Chairwoman Mikulski and I set out to prevent a government shutdown, provide flexibility for those implementing budget cuts, and produce a bill that both parties in both chambers can support.

"It is my hope that the tone we set in meeting these objectives for the current fiscal year will carry over to our work on subsequent appropriations bills. We must continue to work together to replace a last minute, shotgun approach to reducing spending with a deliberate, targeted process."

CR saves funding for food safety inspections, though Vilsack says sequester cuts will still be evident
CR saves funding for food safety inspections, though Vilsack says sequester cuts will still be evident

Food safety inspector furloughs averted

An amendment to the CR to close a funding gap for the Food Safety and Inspection Service was passed just before a vote on the larger bill was called.

U.S. Senators Roy Blunt, R-Mo. and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., introduced the amendment to the Continuing Resolution last week, hoping to save some food inspection jobs from the furlough chopping block.

The amendment transfers $55 million in existing agriculture funds to FSIS to cover costs of FSIS inspections. It adds no additional cost to the bill, the Senators say, and instead moves one-time funding for school equipment grants and deferred maintenance on buildings and facilities at USDA.

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"I'm very pleased the Senate unanimously passed this important amendment, which will help protect every family from paying higher food costs, and ensure hardworking Americans who make a living at these food inspection facilities don't see their wages cut," Sen. Blunt said in a press statement.

Pryor added, "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 [Arkansas] alone."

Broader ag provisions also part of bill

The Agriculture Appropriations bill, also included as part of the CR, will maintain funding for research at land grant universities and rural infrastructure while providing for implementation of the Food Safety and Modernization Act.

A more controversial aspect of the ag appropriations bill was the so-called Sec. 735 "biotech rider," which provides farmers who plant USDA-approved GM crops with certainty that their product may enter the market, even if the product or seed is deregulated during a growing season.

Activist group Center for Food Safety says the rider is part of a "hidden backroom deal" to protect biotech companies. Previous efforts by Sens. Tester, Boxer, Gillibrand, Leahy, Begich and Blumenthal to remove the Sec. 735 language have failed.

Despite appropriations, sequester effects still exist within USDA

The bill, and provisions for FSIS serve as a sort of coping mechanism, shifting funds to essential services while keeping many of the automatic spending cuts introduced by sequestration earlier this month.

USDA said Wednesday about $152 million in total will be cut from Farm Service Agency programs, affecting about 350,000 farmers. The Milk Income Loss Program, the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program and the Noninsured Assistance Program will be affected.

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"The problem with the way the sequester was structured is that it actually requires us to look back in time," Vilsack told a group of trade officials Wednesday.

To cope, Vilsack said USDA will pro-rate subsidies to recoup lost funds.

Additionally, the sequester will force conservation reductions, fewer overseas trade promotion efforts and cuts to some rural development programs.

Vilsack said despite all the cuts, the amendment to the Senate CR to fund food safety inspectors acknowledges that USDA has no options under sequester.

"We have no other option, and I sincerely hope that folks recognize this is not a bluff, this is not make-believe, this is real," Vilsack said of the cuts.

Now what?

The Senate CR will now head to the House of Representatives for a vote, which Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told Bloomberg was likely to be favorable.

A final vote also frees up the rest of the week to work on the budget proposal offered by the Senate, which offers up savings found in the farm bill.

Last week, the text of the plan was revealed, showing a possible $4.25 trillion in deficit reduction and a projected savings of $23 billion from the Senate Farm Bill.

The Senate plan also focused on programs it plans to retain, including conservation investments and cost-share programs, agriculture research for land-grand universities, and investments in clean energy.

It also offered a safety net program with flexibility for the Senate Agriculture Committee to write a five-year farm bill.

Click here to read full text of the CR.