Published March 21, 2013
Senate lawmakers voted Wednesday to prevent the Obama administration from making painful sequester-tied cuts to military tuition assistance as well as meat and poultry inspectors.
The votes, which came in the form of amendments to a spending bill, marked the first by Congress aimed at easing the impact of the sequester. A number of lawmakers have complained the administration is making the automatic budget cuts more painful than they need to be with its budget decisions.
The first amendment approved by the Senate Wednesday was pushed by Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and would restore tuition assistance for U.S. servicemembers.
The Army, Marines and Air Force had pulled back on the tuition assistance program for this fiscal year in response to the sequester, causing an outcry among lawmakers as U.S. troops stood to lose out on thousands of dollars in potential aid.
Inhofe and Hagan also have introduced the measure as a stand-alone bill -- which was done when it appeared their amendment would not get a vote. The Senate later allowed votes on several amendments, including theirs, before approving the overall spending bill.
"This is an earned benefit that not only assists in recruiting and retention efforts for our all-volunteer force, but it also improves the lives of our men and women as they seek leadership opportunities within the military," Inhofe said in a statement.
The Senate also voted Wednesday to provide more money -- $55 million more -- to keep meat and poultry inspectors on the job.
The amendment by Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas is aimed at preventing intermittent closures of meatpacking plants across the country that would be forced by automatic spending cuts that started to take effect this month.
The Agriculture Department warns that the furloughs could cost $10 billion in production losses and lost wages of $400 million.
The Senate bill to which the amendments are attached would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, averting a government shutdown. It now goes to the House.
Lawmakers, though, did not approve a separate amendment that would again fund White House tours - which were suspended earlier this month.
The amendment was offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who proposed taking millions out of the National Recreation and Preservation account, and directing it toward White House visitor services, as well as American landmarks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks.
Neither of those parks is closing, but they are facing potential cutbacks over the sequester.
Obama administration officials have been challenged on a host of sequester-related cuts, from a decision to release low-priority illegal immigrants from Southwest jails to the decision to suspend White House tours.
The cuts, which kicked in this month, were the result of a bipartisan deficit-cutting deal struck in 2011 between the White House and Congress.
Both sides thought they would be able to decide on more acceptable cuts in time to replace the sequester's across-the-board cuts to the military and discretionary programs. They failed.