Issues / Legislation » Legislative Weekly Reports

Week Ending December 6, 2013

Budget Talks Continue, But No Deal Yet

Budget negotiations, led by Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), continued toward a possible agreement to avoid another government shutdown and to provide some relief from the harmful across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration. Some reports say they may be close to a short term deal that will extend funding through the existing Fiscal Year (FY), but getting a final deal is proving difficult as more members of Congress weigh in with concerns. Both sides still hope to pass an agreement before the December 13 self-imposed deadline, however, government funding doesn’t run out until January 15, when the current funding resolution expires.    

A potential compromise being crafted by the two leaders would increase both domestic and defense spending over a one or two year period depending on the amount of money they can find to pay for relief from the painful spending cuts. Without any relief, spending is capped at $967 billion for FY 2014, which began October 1, 2013. A one-year spending increase could increase the overall cap by $34 billion or higher, getting spending to at least $1 trillion; $515 billion for defense and $486 billion for domestic spending. Reaching any agreement has been complicated in part because of the GOP leadership’s refusal to consider revenues from closing corporate tax loopholes or raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for restoring spending, although there is talk of generating some revenue from smaller items like Federal Communication Commission (FCC) spectrum sales and increased security fees on airline tickets. Another source of funds under consideration is to require federal employees to contribute more to their pensions although AFSCME and other unions oppose forcing federal employees to make further sacrifices given the pay freeze and cutbacks already sustained by the federal workforce. Moreover, we have been urging lawmakers to include an extension of emergency unemployment benefits as part of any budget agreement. 

Congressional Democrats Pressing for Continuation of Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation Through 2014

Congressional Democrats are pushing to continue the federal program of extended unemployment insurance benefits (EUC), which is due to expire at the end of December.  Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI) have introduced legislation to continue the current program through the end of next year (S. 1747, H.R. 2821), and 31 Senate Democrats have signed a letter urging its continuation.  In addition, several workers for whom unemployment insurance benefits have been a vital lifeline presented moving testimony at a hearing that the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee held this week to highlight the need to continue the program.  The hearing was chaired by House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and heavily attended by members of the House Democratic leadership and other Democratic lawmakers.

There is very little time left before Congress adjourns to move legislation that would continue the EUC program.  Some Democrats are pressing to get an agreement to pass legislation continuing the program as part of the current budget negotiations. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) appeared to leave some room for discussion in comments he made Thursday after the Steering and Policy Committee hearing, but he made no commitments and it is unclear how far House GOP leadership actually would be willing to go.

Unless Congress acts quickly, approximately 1.3 million jobless Americans who have been out of work for six months or more will stop receiving federal unemployment benefits the week after Christmas.  Another 1.9 million would lose access to benefits in the first six months of 2014 when their regular state unemployment benefits of 26 weeks or less run out. 

Operation of Federal Health Care Website Significantly Improved

The federally operated website for the Affordable Care Act was re-launched on Sunday with upgrades that substantially reduced computer glitches and made the site easier to navigate.  While official data won’t be released until later in the month, there were reports that 29,000 signed up for a new health care plan on Sunday and Monday.  This compares with the 126,000 who signed up during all of October and November.  The website is also able to handle more users.  One million logged onto the site on Monday, and nearly that many logged onto it on Tuesday.  When the website is under heavy use, consumers can get an email alert letting them know when the site traffic is more manageable.  The administration continues to work on the website’s functionality.   

President Obama’s Speech on Rising Income Inequality and Declining Economic Mobility

On Wednesday, President Obama highlighted the worsening problems of rising income inequality and declining economic mobility in America and their threat to working families and our national economy.  The president declared that this is today’s defining issue – ensuring our economy works for all Americans — and he noted upcoming budget decisions will determine if today’s children who work hard will be able to get ahead.  President Obama described his prior efforts and future plans to reverse these trends, including his strong support for raising the minimum wage.  Emphasizing the importance of America’s unions, he said: “It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to, so that unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers, and better wages for the middle class.”  He also stressed that “we need to dispel the myth that the goals of growing the economy and reducing inequality are necessarily in conflict, when they should actually work in concert.” 

Immigration Reform Advocates Look to 2014

With only a few days left before House members leave for their extended holiday recess, the push for immigration reform moves into 2014.  While the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive bill in June (S. 744), Speaker Boehner has refused to schedule a House vote on any immigration reform legislation, comprehensive or piecemeal.  In a hopeful sign, this week Boehner hired Rebecca Tallent to lead his immigration reform efforts.  Ms. Tallent was Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) chief of staff and immigration staffer several years ago when McCain and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) worked together  to craft bipartisan immigration reform, an effort that proved ultimately to be unsuccessful.  She most recently was the director of immigration policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, releasing a report in October that highlighted the many economic benefits of reforming our broken immigration system.

Advocates for immigration reform continue to keep up the pressure.  In Washington, D.C., the “Fast for Families” tent on the National Mall, just a couple of hundred yards from the U.S. Capitol, continues to bring attention to the need for comprehensive reform.  Four activists who fasted for 23 days ended their fast at a rally on Tuesday, with others, including Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA), picking up the mantle and carrying the fast forward.  Thousands of others across the country have participated in solidarity fasts to highlight the pressing need for comprehensive immigration reform and for a stop to deportations of law-abiding immigrants.  AFSCME President Lee Saunders joined the fast, as did Paul Booth, Special Assistant to the President.  At the Tuesday event, President Saunders pledged our union’s full support:  “We don’t have to be immigrants to share in the cause.  I may not have suffered the conditions that undocumented workers face each day, but I am part of a labor movement that hopes to lift up all workers.” Over the last several weeks, President Obama and the First Lady, Vice-President Biden, and dozens of members of Congress have visited the fasting tent and many participated in the rally to show their support for the fasters and their goal of comprehensive immigration reform.   

Congressman Introduces Proposal to Raise the Gasoline Tax

This week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill that would nearly double the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax that is traditionally used to pay for federal transportation projects.  His legislation would increase the gas tax by 15 cents, matching a proposal suggested a few years ago by the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission. The legislation would result in drivers paying an extra 33.4 cents per gallon, in addition to state taxes on gasoline.  The current federal tax brings in about $35 billion per year, which results in a shortfall of about $20 billion in infrastructure funding as cars have become more fuel efficient. The last federal gas tax increase was in 1993.   

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