Issues / Legislation » Legislative Weekly Reports

Week Ending March 1, 2013

Efforts to Stop Sequestration Thwarted

Congressional GOP leaders have pushed the American economy in front of a moving train.  Starting today, March 1, the across-the-board spending cuts totaling $85 billion between now and September 30 will slash funding for public services ranging from education, child care, public safety, food safety and inspection, public works, transportation and more. 

The Senate was not able to advance a Democratic bill (S. 388) which would have eliminated some direct farm payments, made targeted defense cuts and raised significant revenues to avoid the sequester.  It would have implemented the so-called “Buffett rule,” setting a 30% tax rate for millionaires, closed oil and gas tax loopholes, and eliminated the ability of large corporations to avoid taxes by shipping jobs overseas.  All Democrats, except for Senators Kay Hagan (NC), Mark Pryor (AR), and Mary Landrieu (LA) supported the bill, which was opposed by all GOP senators.  The Republican bill (S. 16) also failed, mostly along party lines but with the support of Democratic Senators Mark Warner (VA) and Max Baucus (MT).  It would have barred Congress from raising revenues, including closing tax loopholes.

Now, people will lose jobs, families will be hurt and the entire national economy will suffer because Tea Party senators and representatives could not put politics aside and do what is right for the country.  AFSCME continues to urge Congress to take a balanced and fair approach to reducing the deficit, one that increases revenue by closing loopholes and ending special tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. 

Next week, Congress is expected to focus on extending funding for the remainder of fiscal year 2013 to avoid a government shutdown.  The current budget, extended last December, expires on March 27. It is possible that sequestration could be addressed at the same time.  The House and Senate will also begin efforts to prepare for the fiscal year 2014 budget in the coming weeks.

VAWA Passes House, Will Become Law

This week, the House finally passed S. 47, the Senate-passed bill, to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that funds the prevention, investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. VAWA now includes provisions to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans receive equal treatment for domestic violence services, and that tribal courts have jurisdiction for abuse cases.  The President is expected to sign the bill as soon as it gets to his desk. The final vote was bipartisan, with 199 Democrats joining 87 Republicans to defeat opposition from a bloc of 138 GOP conservatives who opposed the bill for a number of reasons, including new protections for LGBT Americans and expanding the authority of tribal courts to prosecute abuse cases.

The VAWA authorizes federal funding for battered women’s shelters, victims’ advocates, rape-prevention education and other programs. It authorizes up to $660 million be spent each year for the next five years for such programs — a drop of 17% from the last time the act was reauthorized in 2005. Advocates said the reduction in funding was disappointing but inevitable given the shrinking federal budgets. AFSCME pushed hard for approval of the measure to reinforce the nation’s commitment to ending domestic and sexual violence. We also supported the new provisions that expand VAWA’s reach, including new barring discrimination against gays and lesbians in programs funded by the bill.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) helped craft a GOP version of the measure, which was silent on same-sex couples and attempted a compromise on the issue of Indian reservations. His proposal was defeated 166 to 257 on Thursday. Then the House proceeded to vote on the Senate’s version despite strong opposition from some GOP members, a significant shift from last year. It came after a November election in which Republicans lost ground with female voters and some key GOP candidates made embarrassing misstatements on the sensitive issue of rape. After the Senate passed the bill on a strongly bipartisan 78 to 22 vote earlier this month, a group of 18 House Republicans wrote a letter to their leaders urging a vote on the Senate bill instead of another GOP House bill. Fifty-nine Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the GOP version of the measure.

“There is absolutely no reason that it should have taken this long for the House leadership to come around on a bill that had overwhelming bipartisan support,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a leading advocate for the bill. “But passage today is a validation of what we’ve been saying since this bill expired in 2011 — VAWA has never been, and should never be, a partisan bill.” Murray applauded “moderate Republican voices in the House who stood up to their leadership to demand a vote on the Senate bill.”

The AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce Release Joint Statement on Guest Worker Program in Comprehensive Immigration Reform; House and Senate Working on Bills

After several weeks of intense negotiations, on February 21 the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a “joint statement of shared principles” about the “future flow” of low-skilled immigrants.  While lacking details, it contains several significant agreements: giving U.S. workers the first shot at available jobs; the creation of a “professional bureau” that would use employment data to determine labor shortages and when they exist, allow employers to hire foreign workers while protecting the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers; and not keeping all guest workers in a permanent temporary status and allowing them to change jobs if they desire. 

The Senate “Gang of 8” (Michael Bennet (D-CO), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) John McCain (R-AZ) Robert Menendez (D-NJ),  Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)) is working on a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill, which will likely be released by the end of March.  House negotiators have also been crafting their CIR bill.  A key stumbling block is whether it will include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and whether that path would be available to all 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

Congressional Concern Over Social Security Benefit Cuts Continues

White House statements in connection with the sequester have referred to the deficit reduction proposal which President Obama offered to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) as the President’s current deficit reduction plan.  That plan includes the “chained CPI,” which would change the calculation of annual social security cost of living increases in such a way as to cut benefits for current and future retirees.   

Concerned that the White House may accept and possibly affirmatively support, the chained CPI, 107 House Democrats, led by Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), John Conyers (D-MI), and Donna Edwards (D-MD), have written to President Obama strongly opposing benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, including the chained CPI, in any final bill to replace sequestration,.  This is the first time a majority of House Democrats have signed a letter expressly opposing the chained CPI.

Legislation to Tax Wall Street Speculation Introduced by Sen. Harkin & Rep. DeFazio

This week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced the “Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act (S. 410) and (H.R. 880),” which would tax complex transactions and speculative trades by banks and financial firms and is estimated to raise about $350 billion over ten years. It would not harm working families, middle-class investors, or long-term investing. It imposes a tiny tax of .03% (three dollars for every $10,000 in value) on most non-consumer financial trades such as stocks, bonds, and other debts, except when initially issued. Earlier this year, 11 European governments, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain agreed to implement a financial transaction tax.

AFSCME strongly supports the Harkin-DeFazio bill because it raises needed revenues, which could replace the harmful sequester cuts and avoid cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. AFSCME President Lee Saunders said: “AFSCME strongly supports the Harkin-DeFazio Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act... A financial transaction tax reduces high-speed speculation and volatility, and would serve to strengthen workers’ retirement security.  Moreover, it would provide vitally needed new revenue to strengthen Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other important government services.

House Panel Examines Medicare Benefit Redesign

The House held a subcommittee hearing on a leading proposal to redesign Medicare benefits.  The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has proposed a new structure that would include: a combined deductible for Part A and Part B services; changing coinsurance with copayments that may vary by type of service and provider; administrative authority to alter or eliminate cost-sharing based on type of service and provider; an out-of-pocket maximum; and an additional charge on supplemental insurance.  Unfortunately, under these proposals many beneficiaries would see increased costs and those with employer-sponsored supplemental plans could see a surcharge on those benefits. AFSCME’s statement to the subcommittee cautioned that Medicare benefit redesign must not disguise cost shifting on to beneficiaries or employers that provide retiree coverage. To view AFSCME’s testimony, log on to: http://www.afscme.org/issues/medicare-social-security/letters-statements/document/AFSCME-Statement-Medicare-Benefit-Design-2-26-13-Final-WEB-wcover.pdf

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