Week Ending April 7, 2017
In a vote largely along party lines, the Senate voted 54 to 45 on Friday to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia more than a year ago. All Senate Republicans, plus Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV) and Joe Donnelly (IN) voted for confirmation while the remaining Democrats opposed confirmation.
The confirmation vote was preceded by a vote to change long-standing rules requiring a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court to receive the support of at least 60 Senators in order to be confirmed to a lifelong seat on the nation’s highest court. Because Neil Gorsuch was unable to earn the support of 60 Senators, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) moved to change the rules to require only a simple majority in order to ram the confirmation of Gorsuch through. The vote to change the rules was cast along strict party lines with all Democrats opposing the rules change and all Republicans supporting it. As a result of this change, future nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court will only need support from a majority of the Senate to be confirmed.
Democrats had opposed Gorsuch because his judicial opinions showed a strong pattern of favoring corporate interests over the rights of all others. During his hearings, he refused to articulate his judicial philosophy and would not respond to questions over his view of previous Supreme Court rulings, such as a decision over school segregation in the 1954 landmark case of Brown v. the Topeka, KS Board of Education. AFSCME, along with many unions, civil rights groups, women’s organizations and others strongly opposed confirmation of Gorsuch.
Congress recessed for a two-week spring break without finalizing funding for the current fiscal year (FY 2017) which began nearly six months ago. The government is currently operating under a stop-gap funding measure known as a continuing resolution (CR). The CR will expire on April 28, leaving Congress only four business days to finalize spending after returning from its recess.
Congress has been working on funding, but President Trump interrupted the process when he submitted a request less than two weeks ago to cut $18 billion from public services in the nondefense discretionary budget and to shift the spending to defense, border security, and the construction of a border wall. In a press conference call with allies, AFSCME Sec.-Treas. Elissa McBride called President Trump’s budget priorities “an attack on public services and working families,” adding that they are “unprecedented in their austerity and cruelty.”
AFSCME is also concerned about policy riders that extremists in Congress are trying to include in the funding package. These policy riders are unpopular proposals slipped into must-pass legislation. This year’s riders may include attempts to:
- Undermine the rights of workers to organize in a union and bargain collectively for fair pay, decent benefits and safe workplaces;
- Repeal the new overtime rule, which gives millions of people the time and a half pay they’ve earned for the extra hours they’ve worked;
- Block an Obama administration regulation requiring financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interests; and
- Roll back the OSHA standard protecting workers in construction and other industries from inhaling deadly levels of silica dust.
AFSCME urges Congress to pass a clean bill that invests in public services and working families instead of holding the budget hostage to a right-wing agenda.
Early this week, the White House attempted to resurrect legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid. Negotiations once again started up with members of the House Freedom Caucus, which had opposed the legislation because it did not go far enough. The discussions involved the possibility of allowing states to waive requirements that health coverage include a number of basic elements including hospitalization benefits, prescription drug coverage, mental health and substance use treatment and maternity care. The talks collapsed on Wednesday night. However, the House GOP leadership did amend the bill to add $15 billion to subsidize insurance companies that cover patients with very high-cost health care needs. This provision is designed to reduce premiums and stabilize the insurance market for those families who buy coverage on their own. GOP leaders had previously blocked the continuation of similar payments under the Affordable Care Act, criticizing them as a bailout for insurance companies.
While the effort to repeal the ACA has stalled for now, it is unlikely that the White House and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) will throw in the towel. In particular, we expect that the Speaker will focus on how to move forward with his plan to convert Medicaid into a per capita cap system and reduce the amount of funding that the federal government pays to states to operate their Medicaid programs.
To ensure President Trump and future presidents disclose their annual federal income tax returns, House Democrats started a petition to pass Rep. Anna Eshoo’s (D-CA) Presidential Tax Transparency Act, (H.R. 305) and force a vote of the full House of Representatives. Eshoo’s bill would require U.S. presidents to disclose their last three annual federal income tax filings to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and require the same from presidential nominees. Because House Republican leaders are unwilling to put the bill up for a vote, Democrats resorted to a discharge petition, which would force a House vote on H.R. 305 when the petition is signed by a majority of House members. Within 2 days, this discharge petition had been signed by 178 House members, but without any Republican signers its not expected to reach a vote.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said while tax returns never provide every financial detail, “they are a key that opens the door to so much information,” and will help Americans better understand potential links between President Trump and Russia. AFSCME supports both this legislation and increased transparency of the finances of America’s high ranking elected officials.
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