Issues / Legislation » Legislative Weekly Reports

Week Ending March 14, 2014

Bipartisan Group of Senators Agrees on Legislation to Continue Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program

On Thursday, Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) announced that agreement had been reached on legislation to continue the Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program.  The legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Rob Portman (R-OH), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) and is expected to go to the Senate floor for a vote the week of March 24. Sens. Portman and Kirk had been the object of sustained grassroots pressure for weeks to support an extension.

The legislation would extend the federal unemployment program for five months.  It is retroactive to January 1 and will stop paying benefits at the end of May.  The final package continues a 2012 program which finances a program of reemployment assessments and reemployment services.  Department of Labor guidance for this program urges, and in some cases requires, states to use state unemployment insurance and employment service staff to provide these services.  Significantly, the agreement dropped a number of GOP proposals which AFSCME and other advocates strongly opposed, including a proposal for a massive community work program for unemployment compensation claimants and another that would have cut Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for workers with disabilities who concurrently receive Unemployment Insurance (UI).

AFSCME played a major role in the grassroots effort to restore the EUC program by financing  television advertisements just days after the benefits expired in December, organizing and participating in press events with labor and progressive allies in targeted districts, and generating more than 45,000 phone calls and emails to lawmakers calling for immediate renewal of UI.  We will be continuing these efforts to solidify support for the Senate vote and build support to pass the bill in the House of Representatives. 

With Bipartisan Support, Senate Passes Bill to Renew Child Care Program

After a remarkably nonpartisan debate over two days that was not burdened by what have become typical procedural hurdles, the Senate passed The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 (S. 1086) by a vote of 97 to 1.  Most of the amendments focused on improving quality, safety and access to the federal child care program.  The notable exception came from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), the only dissenter to the overall bill.  His amendment would have required parents who apply for child care assistance to provide a Social Security number (SSN) for their children. Currently, only qualified immigrants may receive child care assistance, and this unnecessary amendment could have deterred immigrant parents of citizen children without an SSN from seeking assistance. The Senate did not vote on the Lee amendment.

S. 1086 would renew CCDBG for the first time since 1996. It includes new requirements to ensure the health and safety of children in child care, facilitate families’ access to assistance, and improve the quality of care.  The bill does not specify program funding, which will be determined in the upcoming congressional funding process.  Of note, the bill requires a pre-licensure inspection and one unannounced inspection for all regulated and licensed child care providers receiving CCDBG funds; sufficient numbers of licensing inspectors; state-mandated training on health and safety; and background checks of all providers.  It also establishes a minimum eligibility period for subsidized child care of 12 months and requires states to use at least 70% of federal funds for direct services.

The Congressional Budget Office conservatively estimates that S. 1086 could increase program costs by $150 billion a year.  AFSCME is urging Congress to increase CCDBG funding by $817 million next year to enable states to adequately prepare for new requirements, fund the loss of 260,000 child care slots since 2002, and increase reimbursement rates for providers.  The House will hold a hearing on CCDBG on March 25 and may be preparing to pass a similar bill. 

Activists Launch Bus Tour as Part of Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage

Last month, House Democrats attempted to force House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to hold a vote on raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10. To escalate the urgency of passing this important legislation, AFSCME is joining labor and progressive allies—led by the advocacy group Americans United for Change—in launching a bus tour immediately following next week’s congressional recess.

Starting in Maine on March 24, the bus will spend two weeks crossing the country, stopping in targeted congressional districts in nine states to hold press events highlighting the need to raise the federal minimum wage in those communities. The tour will conclude with a rally on Capitol Hill on April 3, ahead of a minimum wage vote in the U.S. Senate scheduled for that week.

If you are interested in participating in local events, contact Karl Stark in AFSCME’s Federal Government Affairs Department to see if the minimum wage bus is coming to a town near you. And if you haven’t already, urge your member of Congress to sign the “discharge petition” in support of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour:  Please call toll-free 1-888-851-1916 to be connected now!!! 

Republican Leadership Sours Medicare Deal for Doctors and Beneficiaries

On March 31, Medicare payments to physicians are scheduled to be cut significantly unless Congress acts. Blocking these scheduled cuts has been a near-annual congressional ritual that creates uncertainty for physicians and their Medicare patients. Legislation to stop these cuts and to reform the flawed Medicare physician payment system has strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. Regrettably, House GOP leadership soured this effort by turning the legislation into an opportunity to attack the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The GOP leadership bill (H.R. 4015) pays for the needed reforms by delaying the individual shared responsibility provision in the ACA.  On Friday, the House approved H.R. 4015, largely along partylines.  The Senate will debate legislation to fix payment cuts to physicians the week of March 24.

AFSCME strongly supports repealing and replacing the defective Medicare payment system for physicians.  However, we oppose these bills because they pay for the needed reforms by robbing seniors and millions of families of the peace of mind that comes from having affordable health care coverage.  

The Congressional Budget Office and Joint Tax Committee estimate that delaying the individual mandate to have insurance coverage would raise premiums for those in the exchanges by 10% to 20%.  These increases especially will hurt older Americans who are not yet eligible for Medicare. 

As Congress continues to debate how to pay for needed Medicare payment reform, AFSCME strongly opposes paying for this reform by increasing the costs of Medicare beneficiaries and their retiree plans, either through higher premiums or deductibles.  AFSCME does support ending a 2006 sweetheart deal for brand-name drug manufacturers that has allowed them to charge Medicare higher prices for prescription drugs for some seniors and people with disabilities.   

President Seeks to Strengthen Overtime Protections

This week, President Obama directed Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to begin the process of strengthening overtime pay protections.  The goal is to make sure that millions of workers are paid a fair wage for a hard day’s work and to simplify rules for employers and workers alike.  Overtime and minimum wage rules were set in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) originally passed by Congress in 1938.  The Secretary of Labor is instructed to update regulations regarding who qualifies for overtime pay by updating existing protections, addressing the changing nature of the workplace and simplifying the rules as much as possible. 

House Passes Bills Curbing Executive Authority Rather Than Voting on Immigration Reform

Instead of holding a vote on legislation to reform our broken immigration system, the House passed two bills aimed at reversing President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and other initiatives that would limit deportations, implement the Affordable Care Act and numerous other policy priorities.  H.R. 4138, which passed on a largely partisan vote of 233 to 181, would allow either house of Congress to sue the President when it believes he is failing to enforce the law. President Obama’s executive actions on prosecutorial discretion for immigration enforcement, DACA, and ACA implementation, among many others, would be vulnerable under this bill.  Only five Democrats voted in favor of this legislation:  Reps. John Barrow (GA), Henry Cuellar (TX), Pete Gallego (TX), Collin Peterson (MN) and Nick Rahall (WV).  No Republican voted against it.

A related bill (H.R. 3973), passed with a largely partisan 244 to 171 vote.  This legislation requires the Attorney General to submit a report to Congress on any formal or informal policy to refrain from enforcing a law.  The House Judiciary Committee report cites DACA as an example of the President’s “failure to enforce the law.”  Prosecutorial discretion in deportations would also be targeted.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) declared that both bills are dead on arrival in the Senate.  And, President Obama vowed he would veto both bills if they reached his desk.

Instead of its fixation on tying the President’s hands, the House GOP leadership should hold a vote on fixing our broken immigration system.  H.R. 15, which is modeled on the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation (S. 744), has 200 co-sponsors and deserves an up or down vote. 

President Obama Will Review Administration’s Immigration Enforcement Policies

Responding to growing protests in the immigrant rights, labor and religious communities over the number of deportations of undocumented immigrants under his administration, the White House announced Thursday that President Obama has asked for a review of enforcement policies to determine whether he can use his executive authority to make these policies more “humane.”  The announcement came after the President met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), which also has been calling for his administration to do more to protect those who would gain legal status if Congress passed comprehensive immigration reform.  In reporting on President Obama’s meeting with the CHC leaders, a White House spokesman said:  “The president emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system.”   

House Bill Would Extend Health Care Coverage to All Legally Present Immigrants

This week, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) introduced the Health Equity and Access Under the Law (HEAL) for Immigrant Women and Families Act of 2014 (H.R. 4240).  This legislation would restore access to affordable health coverage for immigrants who are authorized to live and work in the U.S.  Nearly 200 organizations, including AFSCME, signed a letter of support for the HEAL Act.  As Rep. Lujan Grisham said: “Immigrant women and families work hard, pay their taxes, and contribute to their communities, society, and economy.  They shouldn’t be barred from accessing the health care they help pay for.”  Specifically, the bill would remove the five-year waiting period for “qualified” immigrants; restore full Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program benefits to all lawfully present immigrants who are otherwise eligible; and allow young immigrants who are lawfully in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to access affordable health insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. 

Enrollment in Affordable Care Act Coverage Continues to Climb

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the latest figures on enrollment in private health plans through federal and state health care exchanges.  Through March 1, just over 4.2 million had enrolled in health plans.  Eighty-three percent who selected a plan are eligible for tax credits to help pay for their coverage.  Among the new enrollees, 55% are female and 45% male.  Thirty-one percent of those who have enrolled thus far are age 34 and under, a key demographic group targeted for coverage.  Enrollment among young adults is expected to pick up as the March 31 enrollment deadline approaches. 

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