Week Ending June 14, 2013
House Busts the Budget; Year-End Funding Storm Brewing
This week, the House Appropriations Committee passed a defense funding bill that exceeds the Defense Department’s request and busts the sequester cap by $28 billion, shifting even deeper cuts to non-defense programs like labor, health, education, housing, nutrition, and law enforcement. Democrats offered an amendment to replace sequestration completely, but it failed on party-lines. The House has not scheduled consideration of the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education (LHHS) bill, which cut funding by nearly 20%. The Senate just announced that it will vote on LHHS in committee the second week of July.
This week’s broader budget discussions indicate that a storm continues to mount for the fall when raising the debt ceiling will be required and Congress will likely be grappling with short-term extensions of funding bills to avert a government shutdown. The debt ceiling crisis from two years ago showed that playing chicken with the national economy has terrible consequences, yet no resolution is in sight. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has called for entitlement “cuts and reforms” that are larger than the needed increase in the debt ceiling, while the President has unequivocally stated opposition to negotiating over the debt ceiling and has threatened to veto all House spending bills, citing insufficient funding levels.
Immigration Reform Senate Floor Debate Begins
This week, the Senate began floor debate on the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” (S. 744), the comprehensive immigration reform bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. Senators on both sides of the aisle have submitted a raft of amendments and there will be many more to come. Only one has come up for a vote so far. The Senate voted 57 to 43 to table an amendment sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that would have required the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to maintain “effective control over the entire southern border” for at least six months before immigrants could start on the at least 13 year path to citizenship. As currently worded, the bill allows legalization to begin after DHS submits and begins implementation of a security plan, with additional requirements before new immigrants could become Legal Permanent Residents. The bipartisan gang of eight senators held firm, with all voting to table the amendment. Otherwise, it was mainly a party-line vote, except Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) crossed over to vote in favor of tabling the Grassley amendment, and Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) voted against tabling.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced on Thursday that no further votes would be taken on S. 744 until next week. His goal is to have a final vote on the bill before the July 4 recess. Given the slow pace on amendments so far, Reid told senators they should keep their calendars open the weekend of June 22-23 to continue work on the bill.
Also this week, dozens of representatives from AFL-CIO state federations and affiliate unions – including AFSCME – came to Washington, D.C. to lobby their senators to support comprehensive immigration reform, to take action necessary to fill long-term vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board, and to oppose changes to the cost-of-living formula for Social Security that would result in benefit cuts for seniors and persons with disabilities (“chained CPI”). Especially at this opportune moment for the immigration bill’s progress, it is extremely important that all senators hear labor’s support for immigration reform legislation that has a pathway to citizenship without border enforcement “triggers” and that has worker protections for all U.S. workers and for foreign workers who may come to our country to work in the future.
House Taking Up Piecemeal Immigration Bills
GOP leadership in the House has decided to go forward with small-bore immigration bills next week, with the House Judiciary Committee taking up Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-SC) enforcement-only bill. The House’s gang of seven (down from eight after Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) dropped out) is reportedly very close to introducing its comprehensive immigration reform bill, parts or all of which could also go through the committee process. And, there is some conjecture that if the Senate bill passes by a large margin, the House would take up that bill, although it almost certainly would be changed dramatically. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has said he would like to pass one or more immigration bills before the August recess. Ultimately, the Senate and House would have to pass the same bill for it to reach President Obama’s desk.
Senate Committee Passes Education Bill
This week the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that governs K-12 public education. The bill (S. 1094) passed on a strictly party-line vote. ESEA, which was last authorized as No Child Left Behind, has been widely criticized for setting unrealistically high academic goals with severe consequences for not achieving them.
S. 1094 provides school districts with more flexibility in evaluating student progress while continuing to require evaluation systems for teachers and principals. The program to overhaul low-performing schools, School Improvement Grants (SIG), was expanded to include “whole school reform,” which would allow for using turnaround programs (i.e. not firing their entire staff) with a strong evidence base. States could also submit their own proposals for approval. The bill also alters the funding formula with a “comparability requirement” that requires school districts to ensure that per student resources are equitable in all public schools and that teachers’ salaries, likewise, are the same in all schools.
GOP bills to reauthorize ESEA (S. 1101 and H.R. 5), introduced by the ranking HELP Committee leader Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), would significantly reduce the federal government’s role in public education, eliminate the accountability system, and allow public dollars to follow low-income students to private schools. The House is expected to vote in committee on H.R. 5 later this summer, and a Senate floor vote on S. 1094 could possibly occur in the fall. Since the House and Senate versions have little in common, it is widely assumed that ESEA reauthorization will not become law anytime soon.
Jobs Not Cuts
This week the Center for American Progress released a plan to boost the U.S. economy with investments and policies benefiting middle-class workers. The 250-page plan is based on the premise that shared prosperity is essential for a thriving economy. The plan proposes policy solutions to improve the skills and earning power of middle-class workers and to create an economy with good-paying jobs. Proposals include making it easier for workers to form labor unions, funding one million new apprenticeship programs in American companies, making college more affordable, enacting the President’s preschool for all initiative, raising the minimum wage, and overhauling immigration policy. It also recommends new or increased taxes on carbon emissions, financial transactions on Wall Street, dividends, capital gains and profits of targeted corporations, including oil companies.
House Panel Examines Medicaid Reform
On June 12, a House health subcommittee held a hearing on Medicaid reform. In 2011, Medicaid provided health care assistance for about one in every five persons in the United States, including people with disabilities for whom private insurance is either unavailable or inadequate, particularly long-term care services for children and adults with severe mental or physical disabilities. Although much depends on the details, GOP leaders have proposed under the guise of program flexibility to shift additional Medicaid costs onto states, providers, families and beneficiaries. AFSCME opposes such cost-shifting, which would threaten Medicaid services, especially for long-term supports and services.
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