Senators voted Wednesday to make the first significant changes to the budget sequesters, shifting money to keep slaughterhouse inspectors on the job full time but refusing to rearrange money to reopen the White House for public tours.
The votes came as the Senate debated and passed a bill to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year — sending it back to the House for final expected approval later this week and averting a government shutdown.
“This is indeed a very important moment,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee who shepherded the bill through the floor. “We didn’t want brinkmanship, we didn’t want ultimatum politics.”
The 73-26 vote also signals a growing sense in Congress that the shutdown showdowns of the past two years didn’t help either party.
The bill funds basic operations through Sept. 30. It does not undo the level of sequester cuts, but it did begin to rewrite a few priorities, including restoring the military’s tuition assistance programs and restoring the money for food inspections.
Without that addition money, federal inspectors were going to have to be furloughed, and meat-packing plants can’t operate without inspectors on site. That would have made a serious dent in U.S. meat production.
Industry officials had predicted that the U.S. would produce 2 billion pounds less beef and pork and 3 billion pounds less poultry if the inspectors were furloughed.
Senators added the inspection money back in by unanimous vote.
“It was important that Congress act to prevent a potential crisis from developing in our nation’s food supply,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat. “Backlogs in food inspections could result in the shutdown of processing facilities and send devastating ripple effects through rural communities and straight to the shelves of every market and grocery in the country.”
Senators nibbled away what they considered the worst parts of the sequester, but they declined to undo President Obama’s decision to cancel White House tours — a move he made earlier this month as one of the casualties of the budget sequesters, setting off a chorus of complaints from Congress and the public.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, offered an amendment to restore the White House tours, proposing to cut $8 million from spending on national heritage areas in the National Park Service budget.
Mr. Obama himself had proposed the heritage area cuts last year.
Mr. Coburn said the money could be used both to restore White House tours and to help open up parts of Western national parks such as Yellowstone, which could have to delay springtime openings because sequesters have cut money to plow snow off the roads.
But senators, led mostly by Democrats, rejected that plan, arguing that Mr. Coburn was staging a show vote and that canceling the heritage area money would hurt economic development in their home states.
Sen. Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat who led the opposition, also said he doubted whether the money would go to reopen the White House.
“Those tours are governed by the Secret Service, which is not part of this amendment, so that would not be affected,” he said.
Mr. Coburn countered that the tours were, indeed, at stake in the vote.
“The National Park Service does have something to do with White House tours because they can take this money and reallocate it. It is not a Secret Service problem. It is a national park problem,” he said.
“We’re focused on all the wrong things because it’s all about the next election,” Mr. Coburn said.
Now that it’s cleared the 2013 spending bill, the Senate turns its attention to the 2014 budget.
House lawmakers have already begun that debate, with Republicans defeating three Democratic alternatives on Wednesday. The main Democratic substitute was killed on a 253-165 vote, with even 28 Democrats balking at the tax and spending increases.
Hours earlier, Democrats tried to embarrass Republicans by refusing to cast votes on conservative Republicans’ alternative.
Rather than vote for or against the conservative budget, Democrats voted “present” — taking themselves out of the equation and making Republicans have to choose between backing the conservative blueprint, which calls for severe spending cuts, or to vote against it and risk the anger of tea party voters.
The final vote was 132-104 against the conservative plan, with 14 Democrats and 118 Republicans voting against it, and just 104 Republicans voting for it. If the conservative budget had won the vote, it immediately would have become the official House budget, replacing the plan drawn up by Rep. Paul Ryan.
Democrats wanted to force that situation, figuring the conservative budget would be too extreme for many moderate Republicans and therefore would ruin Republican efforts to pass a budget this year.