Week Ending December 4, 2015
Government Shutdown Looming Again- Act Now!
Time is running out. Congress has one week to finalize all 12 funding bills for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 to avoid a government shutdown. Congress has had months to work out a reasonable spending plan. They have been unable to come together, and instead, continue to play a high-stakes game of chicken with the federal budget. A government shutdown would have a devastating impact on millions of jobs, both public and private. This week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed an “omnibus” package of all spending bills that contained numerous poison pill policy “riders” unrelated to the spending bill, including blocking working people from joining together in strong unions, making jobs less safe, and limiting overtime pay. The package was dead on arrival, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and President Obama strongly opposing it.
AFSCME is urging Congress to pass a “clean” year-long omnibus spending bill that prioritizes public services. The 2013 government shutdown drained $24 billion from the economy; we cannot afford another one.
Senate Votes to Gut the Affordable Care Act and to Repeal the 40% Tax on Health Benefits
On Thursday, the Senate approved legislation (H.R. 3762) that would gut the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by repealing the expansion of the Medicaid program, ending employer responsibility requirements and the requirement that most individuals maintain health coverage. The bill also prohibits federal funding to Planned Parenthood clinics for any health care services provided to Medicaid beneficiaries. (Federal law already prohibits funding for abortion services.) The bill was approved on a largely party line vote of 52 to 47. All Democrats opposed it and all Republicans voted in favor except Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Susan Collins (R-ME). The House approved a similar bill in late October and is expected to adopt this version next week. However, there is no chance the bill will become law, as President Obama has vowed to veto it.
Significantly, senators adopted an amendment offered by Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) to H.R. 3762 by a vote of 90 to 10 to permanently repeal the harmful 40% tax on workers’ health benefits. This overwhelming vote reflects the continuing vigorous advocacy by union members, businesses, state and local governments, and patient advocates to repeal the 40% tax, which is already weakening health care coverage, shifting costs to workers, and increasing workers’ deductibles, copays, and overall health expenses. The 10 senators opposing repeal included seven Democrats: Sens. Boxer (CA), Carper (DE), Durbin (IL), Kaine (VA), Manchin (WV), McCaskill (MO) and Warner (VA), and three Republicans: Sens. Coats (IN), Corker (TN), and Sasse (NE). In the House, legislation to repeal this 40% tax is co-sponsored by more than 275 representatives – a majority of members. AFSCME continues to urge Congress to repeal the 40% tax this year, as part of one of the evolving, year-end, must-pass legislative packages. In particular, Congress is currently negotiating a separate package of tax relief provisions, so-called “tax extenders,” which could be a vehicle for action on the health benefits tax.
AFSCME Members Stand Up for Puerto Rico
Amidst Puerto Rico’s continuing fiscal and pension crises and just one day after the financially-imperiled Commonwealth of Puerto Rico struggled to make a $355 million bond payment to investors, AFSCME members from New York’s District Council 37 swarmed Capitol Hill in a show of solidarity for Puerto Rico and their brethren from AFSCME Council 95 in Puerto Rico.
DC 37 members were part of a larger coalition that included The Hispanic Federation, United Auto Workers, and Service Employees International Union. With AFSCME’s Federal Government Affairs Department, DC 37 and other coalition members were able to reach over 14 congressional targets with a succinct message in support of the Obama administration’s assistance plan. Coalition members opposed further austerity measures given that Puerto Rico has already endured more than a decade of budget cuts. AFSCME members cautioned congressional leaders that any bankruptcy authorization covering Puerto Rico and its municipalities must protect workers’ pensions. Additionally, congressional reforms should promote expanded federal investments in Puerto Rico, including increased Medicaid spending and application of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC). At a related press conference, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Reps. Jose Serrano (D-NY), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) and others, including DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrick, highlighted their support for federal assistance to Puerto Rico.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held another hearing on Puerto Rico – the fifth this year. Committee Democrats voiced support for congressional action. AFSCME continues to support increased federal investments in Puerto Rico for Medicaid, EITC and CTC, and protections for workers’ earned pension benefits
Congress Passes Five-Year Highway Bill
Shortly after the House passed legislation (H.R. 22) to merge long-term reauthorizations of surface transportation programs, the Senate quickly approved the legislation, on a vote of 87 to 13. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation before temporary funding expires. This is the first long-term extension of surface transportation programs in over a decade. By shortening the length of the reauthorization to five years from six, Congress was able to avoid budget constraints that have tied up extensions in the past. The $305 billion measure provides critical funding for all states, including for high-density, Northeastern states and increases dedicated bus funding by 89% over the life of the bill. It shores up the Highway Trust Fund through 2020, which has experienced a shortfall due to failure to raise the gas tax for over 20 years. The bill calls for $205 billion in new spending on highways and $48 billion on transit projects over the next five years. It also reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank until 2019.
AFSCME was able to make important improvements strengthening employee protections in the transit public-private partnership “P3” pilot program, but we remain concerned about the move toward these popular partnerships. AFSCME was successful in maintaining protections for engineering and design services.
U.S. Supreme Court Could Decide Key Immigration Case This Term
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court kept open the possibility that the Court could decide the legal challenge over President Obama’s immigration executive actions before he leaves office. These executive actions, announced in November 2014, would establish the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Permanent Residents (DAPA) and expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs. Since then, the lower courts have prevented DAPA and the DACA extension from being implemented due to a lawsuit filed by 26 state attorneys-general, led by Texas. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) quickly appealed to the Supreme Court.
The DOJ is requesting that the Court remove the preliminary injunction against these executive actions first issued by a district court judge in Texas and then affirmed by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. On Tuesday, the justices refused to extend the deadline for additional court filings sought by Texas. By January, we expect the Supreme Court to decide whether it will hear the case this term. This quick schedule will allow the Court to take the case and issue a decision by the end of its current term in June 2016, thus giving President Obama the time to implement DAPA and DACA expansion before the end of his presidency. If the DOJ appeal is successful, approximately five million currently undocumented immigrants would no longer be subject to deportation and could receive work authorization.
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