WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill lawmakers, including Nebraska's two U.S. senators, are continuing their efforts to head off planned furloughs of food safety inspectors.
Because the law requires those inspectors to be present when meat and poultry facilities are operating, plants would have to shut down when inspectors are pulled out for a furlough day.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says inspectors must be furloughed due to the ongoing across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.
Sens. Deb Fischer and Mike Johanns, both Nebraska Republicans, joined Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in introducing an amendment Wednesday that would grant USDA flexibility to transfer money around and exempt the inspectors from furloughs.
During her weekly conference call with reporters, Fischer said that there are better places for Vilsack to make cuts — travel expenses, conferences and supplies.
"To just make cuts in order, I believe, to alarm Americans was not wise for the secretary to do," Fischer said.
The former state senator said she worked in Nebraska to pare back budgets by looking at individual programs.
"We didn't go in with a meat ax and just start slashing away," Fischer said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, also questioned the furloughs during his own conference call with reporters Wednesday.
He said every agency was supposed to prioritize health and safety in making sequestration cuts and said the agency should look to its budget for conferences rather than inspectors.
"There's no sense spending millions of dollars to send people to a conference," Grassley said.
Vilsack recently responded to Fischer and other lawmakers with a letter in which he agreed that the furloughs would hurt consumers, the economy and the meat and poultry industries.
"Unfortunately unless actions are taken to address sequestration, (the agency) will have no choice but to furlough its employees in order to stay within the funding levels Congress has provided," he wrote.
Vilsack wrote that the food safety agency already has cut travel, training, conferences and other operating expenses and limited the hiring of non-frontline staff.
Those steps allowed the department to significantly reduce the number of furlough days, he wrote.
Still, Fischer said that in a department as large as the Department of Agriculture, there is room for additional cuts outside of food safety inspection and that senators will continue pushing to avoid the furloughs.