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Week Ending March 22, 2013

Government Shutdown Averted; Spending Bill goes to Obama

The House and Senate passed legislation this week that ensures that federal government spending will continue through September 30, the end of this fiscal year.  President Obama will sign the funding bill before March 27, the date the current stopgap spending bill was scheduled to expire, thus avoiding a government shutdown. The Senate made some small, positive changes to the House bill.  However, the legislation does include the 5% sequestration cuts.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that these federal funding reductions will result in a $6 billion cut in federal aid to state and local governments through the end of the fiscal year. 

House Passes Draconian Ryan Budget and Rejects Progressive Alternatives; Senate Pursues Budget that Raises Nearly $1 Trillion in Revenues

The House passed Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget for 2014 on a party-line vote of 221 to 207.  It would provide enormous new tax breaks to the wealthy and pay for them by cutting domestic programs by $4.6 trillion, voucherizing Medicare and raising the eligibility age, block granting Medicaid, and eviscerating food stamps.  The bill would also repeal the new healthcare reform law and adds no new revenues. While it wipes out the sequester for defense, it doubles cuts to domestic programs. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that the Ryan budget would eliminate two million jobs in 2014. AFSCME strongly opposed the Ryan budget, while endorsing the more progressive budget plans offered by House Budget Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

In contrast to the Ryan budget, Senate Democratic leaders, put forward a more progressive budget, drafted by the new Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA), which prioritizes job creation and economic growth rather than giving tax breaks to the super-rich and corporations.  The Murray budget raises $975 billion in revenues, replaces sequestration, and preserves the integrity of Medicare, Medicaid, health reform, Social Security and other critical services. The bill is expected to be voted on late Friday.

AFSCME endorsed the Murray budget and urged senators to reject any amendments that would reduce revenues.  Many amendments are expected to be offered during debate.  While the budget resolution is not binding law, the vote lays the ground work for the tax cut when the tax writing committees develop legislation to implement the budget resolution.  The Senate also voted on the Ryan budget as a substitute amendment for the Murray budget, and it was resoundingly rejected largely along party lines with most Republicans supporting it and all Democrats voting no. 

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Continues to Move Forward

Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) legislation was a top-line topic of discussion this week in Washington, D. C. In a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, tea party member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) endorsed CIR and a path to eventual citizenship for the over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.  Another nine tea party house members supported Sen. Paul’s position during a panel discussion at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held two hearings this week.  One focused on CIR’s impact on women and families.  In addition to stressing the importance of a robust family-based visa program and clearing out decades-long backlogs, witnesses addressed how the employment-based H-1B visa is deeply flawed and hinders women’s access to legal immigration.  The H-1B visa allows high-skilled foreign workers to be brought to the U.S. for three to six years to work for a specific employer.  Less than one-third of H-1B visa holders are women.  Moreover, most H-1B visas are issued to outsourcing employers who often bring foreign workers to the U.S. to train them and then send them back to their home country to do the work there, thereby denying jobs to workers in this country. 

All of the employment-based visa programs are being discussed in intense negotiations as the Senate bill writers (the so-called Gang of 8) attempt to finish their legislation during the holiday recess.  Disagreements remain between labor and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on how many foreign workers should be allowed to come to the U.S. each year and whether the determination of labor shortages should be data-driven or based on employers’ desires.  AFSCME and other unions are pushing hard to keep the annual caps on visa programs low and to ensure that no visas are issued unless an independent agency determines that a labor shortage exists and that the employer requesting a guest worker visa made a strong effort to hire U.S. workers.  We are also advocating for strong labor protections for both U.S. and foreign workers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on due process rights for immigrants this week.  House committees held hearings on the Obama administration’s release of some immigrant detainees due to budget constraints caused by the sequester and on border security issues.

As Congress begins its two-week recess, we will be reaching out to AFSCME affiliates in states and congressional districts where we have targets on CIR and ask you to join with your state feds and central labor councils in setting up and attending in-district meetings.  We will provide you with talking points and fact sheets to use for these meetings. 

President Obama Names New Labor Secretary

On Monday, President Obama nominated Thomas E. Perez, currently head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, as Secretary of Labor, a position that would give him a key role in the administration’s efforts to raise the minimum wage and reform immigration laws.  If confirmed, he would succeed Hilda Solis, who resigned in January.

Perez is the only Latino nominated to Obama’s second -term Cabinet so far.  He is expected to face fierce opposition from some GOP senators who say he has been too aggressive on immigration and other issues.  The son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, he attended Brown University and Harvard Law School, partially paying his tuition by working as a sanitation worker.

As head of the Civil Rights Division, Perez lead the Justice Department’s legal challenges to GOP-backed voting laws in Florida, South Carolina, Texas and elsewhere, often criticizing measures he said were intended to disenfranchise minorities and the poor.  Previously, as Secretary for the state of Maryland, he staunchly protected workers’ rights.  It is too early to tell whether these efforts could lead to a lengthy and contentious confirmation struggle in the Senate.  AFSCME strongly supports Perez’s confirmation. 

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