Week Ending February 1, 2013
Senate Passes House Debt Ceiling Bill; Budget Concerns Continue for Annual Spending
This week the Senate passed legislation (H.R. 325) by a vote of 64 to 34 to suspend the debt limit through May 18 and automatically increase the current $16.4 trillion ceiling to accommodate additional debt accumulated up to that date. This is the identical bill the House passed last week. H.R. 325 also requires that the House and Senate each pass a budget by April 15 or lawmakers’ congressional salaries will be withheld until a budget is passed.
GOP amendments were offered but failed. One amendment would have regularly reduced federal spending levels if a budget was not agreed to within 120 days after the budget deadline. This was a backdoor effort to set in place automatic cuts. Another amendment would have made permanent the “Boehner rule,” requiring any increase in the debt ceiling to be accompanied by equal cuts in spending. AFSCME strongly supports a long-term solution that would bar the debt ceiling from being used as a political ploy and endangering the U.S. economy.
With the debt ceiling out of the way at least until mid-May and possibly through early fall, the next budget items will be attempts to avert the planned automatic, across-the-board spending cuts (“sequestration”) scheduled to begin March 1, extending funding for this fiscal year’s spending beyond its current expiration of March 27, and working on a budget resolution for the fiscal year that begins on October 1. It remains unclear how sequestration will be averted, but this week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced he is developing a combination of measures with the goal of including a balanced blend of spending cuts and new revenue generated from eliminating tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Economic data released this week shows that further federal spending cuts will hurt the economy and current spending cuts are weakening economic recovery.
House budget hearings begin next week. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee, launched a new feature on the committee’s website, http://budget.senate.gov/democratic/index.cfm/mybudget (click on My Budget) to gather input from the public detailing how budget cuts impact them personally, concerns about federal budget priorities, and suggestions for raising revenues or making reasonable cuts. Please visit Sen. Murray’s website and describe why the work you do is important to your community and how cuts in federal aid to the states could harm the services you provide. Also, let her know that profitable corporations and the wealthy must pay their fair share of taxes.
Bipartisan Group of Senators, President Obama Release Outlines of Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) took center stage this week. On Monday, a bipartisan group of eight senators (Michael Bennet (D-CO), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Robert Menendez (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)) released a framework for CIR. Significantly, it includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. This path would be contingent, however, on increased border security and locating millions of immigrants who have overstayed their visas. The proposed process would put undocumented residents at the end of the line of prospective immigrants to get green cards, and include background checks, paying a fine and back taxes, learning English and civics, and proving employment. The last requirement is of concern because many undocumented immigrants have been working “off the books,” are misclassified as independent contractors, or could be running their own businesses. The framework includes a faster track for young people who were brought to the U.S. as children (DREAMers) and for agricultural workers. The Senate group’s framework also would require a mandatory employment verification system and the expansion of temporary worker programs. We will work to ensure that any employment verification system does not mistakenly identify and punish workers who are citizens or otherwise authorized to work. AFSCME will also advocate for reformed temporary worker programs that do not allow the hiring of foreign workers unless reliable labor market data shows a true labor shortage exists, and to ensure wage, work hours and other workplace protections for foreign workers.
On Tuesday, President Obama presented his own vision of how to fix our broken immigration system in a speech in Las Vegas. Secretary-Treasurer Reyes attended as an invited guest of the White House. The President praised the bipartisan group of senators for agreeing to a framework for CIR. While many of the President’s CIR principles mirrored those in the senators’ framework, he diverged in some areas. First, he does not make a path to citizenship contingent on enforcement requirements. Also, his proposal for family unification explicitly treats same-sex couple families no differently from other families. The President’s employment verification system would be phased in over five years, and his proposal includes protections for all workers against retaliation for exercising their labor rights and creates a “labor law enforcement fund” targeted to industries that employ a significant number of immigrants.
Both CIR plans are sketchy at best. Over the next several weeks, the various policies will be fleshed out, and this is where the rubber hits the road. President Obama has put CIR on a fast track, warning Congress that if it does not move quickly, he will come forward with his own bill. The Judiciary Committees in both the House and Senate will hold initial hearings in the next two weeks.
AFSCME has taken on the fight in support of a CIR bill that provides a path to citizenship, protects the employment rights of U.S. and foreign workers, and ensures that reliable data of a labor shortage is required before employers are allowed to hire guest workers. We are working closely with the AFL-CIO and other labor partners, as well as immigrant rights advocates, to make CIR a reality. We will be reaching out to AFSCME activists and leaders to engage in field activities, which will significantly strengthen our D.C. lobbying.
Obama Signs $50 Billion Superstorm Sandy Emergency Spending Bill
President Obama signed the $50 billion Superstorm Sandy spending bill, which funds relief, recovery and mitigation assistance for affected communities, individuals, infrastructure and services. On January 28, the Senate voted 62 to 36 to approve the bill, with 53 Democrats and 9 Republicans voting for it. No Democrats opposed it and 36 Republicans voted against it. Before final passage, the Senate voted 35 to 62 to reject a GOP amendment that would have offset the bill’s cost by rescinding already-approved spending and by reducing future spending on education, law enforcement and other vital programs.
Senate To Vote on Violence Against Women Act Next Week
Last year, Congress did not renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) for the first time in its nearly 20-year history. VAWA funds the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and pays for shelters and legal services for domestic violence victims. A strong bipartisan bill currently in the Senate (S. 47) reauthorizes the VAWA and strengthens its protections. AFSCME strongly supports this bill, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID).
With the new Congress, our elected representatives have a new opportunity to right the wrong that allowed this landmark law to languish. Call your senators now and ask them to put aside partisan blockades and extend and strengthen this lifesaving program immediately. A Senate vote could come as early as next week.
Paycheck Fairness Bills Reintroduced in House and Senate; Executive Order Sought
This past week, we celebrated the four year anniversary of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, important legislation that enables individuals subjected to unlawful compensation discrimination to be compensated for their economic losses. But further action is needed to ensure that working women are paid fairly for equal work instead of 77 cents for every dollar paid to men.
Recently, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, (H.R. 377; S. 84), to address this inequality. These bills would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to bar retaliation against workers who voluntarily discuss or disclose their wages. They allow women the same remedies for proven sex-based pay discrimination that are currently available to individuals who have been subjected to race and ethnicity-based discrimination. Further, the bills would provide training and technical assistance to prevent discrimination and authorizes data collection and research to monitor the law’s progress. AFSCME strongly supports H.R. 377 and S. 84. Rep. DeLauro and Sen. Mikulski also wrote to President Obama, requesting that he issue an executive order to prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against workers who share information about their pay. President Obama recently recognized in his inaugural address that our job of ensuring that women receive fair pay will not be complete “until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”
We urge you to call the White House Comment Line at (202) 456-1111 and urge President Obama to issue this executive order. )
NLRB Recess Appointments Ruled Unconstitutional
On January 25 a three-judge panel for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the president violated the U.S. Constitution when he bypassed the Senate to appoint Sharon Block, Richard Griffin and Terence Flynn to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). As a result the Board’s decisions for the past year have been rendered invalid. Although the president says he acted properly because the Senate was on a 20-day recess, the Court ruled that the Senate was technically still in session. (The NLRB is composed of five members who require Senate confirmation after appointment by the president.) The NLRB said in a statement that it disagrees with the Court’s ruling and plans to carry on with its mission. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney added that “the decision is novel and unprecedented and it contradicts 150 years of practice by Democratic and Republican administrations. We respectfully but strongly disagree with the ruling”.
Obama Re-Nominates Richard Cordray to Chair Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Nominates Mary Jo White to Chair Securities and Exchange Commission
President Obama renominated Richard Cordray to chair the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). While Cordray has led the CFPB since it opened in July 2011, the U.S. Senate never confirmed him. In January 2012, his tenure grew more controversial after the president declared a temporary recess appointment of Cordray, which met staunch GOP opposition. In May 2012, 44 Senate Republicans signed a letter stating: “We will not support the consideration of any nominee, regardless of party affiliation, to be the CFPB director until the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is reformed.” There are some signs GOP and business opposition to Cordray has declined and he may receive an up or down Senate vote. The CFPB, created by the historic 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, is significant to working families because it protects consumers’ financial transactions by ensuring a fair, transparent and efficient marketplace for important financial products, such as credit cards, student loans, credit scores and home mortgages. Cordray has been strongly supported by AFSCME, other labor unions, consumer groups, and financial reform advocates for his long-term advocacy for working families.
President Obama also nominated Mary Jo White to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which plays a key role in implementing many Dodd-Frank financial industry reforms. White vowed "to protect investors and to ensure the strength, efficiency and the transparency of our capital markets." For more than 10 years, White was a high level federal prosecutor in New York City and eventually became the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. More recently, she worked for a corporate law firm.
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