Week Ending March 31, 2017
Following a committee vote on Monday, the full Senate is scheduled to debate the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia over one year ago. Under Senate rules, Supreme Court nominations require a 60-vote approval, rather than a simple majority. However, because Gorsuch cannot win the approval of 60 Senators, President Trump has pushed Senate Republican leaders to change the rules and approve his nominee with a simple majority vote.
Democrats are nearly unanimous in their opposition to Gorsuch based on a judicial record in which he has consistently favored corporate interests over the rights of workers, women, people with disabilities and consumers. Gorsuch’s views are considered well outside the mainstream of judicial thought. This was demonstrated most recently when a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court rejected a decision he co-authored that held that schools need to do only a bare minimum to provide special educational services for children with disabilities. He has repeatedly sided with employers over worker-safety and workplace discrimination disputes. His opinions have advanced the notion that private corporations are “persons” under the law with rights that trump those of individual Americans.
The Senate will vote on Thursday or Friday whether to change the rules for confirming Gorsuch’s nomination. AFSCME, along with a broad range of labor, civil rights, women’s and other organizations, is opposed to the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch.
Once again, there is a possibility of a government shutdown that would threaten public services and federal workers as the current temporary spending measure expires April 28. Congress has been working to prepare a final spending bill for the current fiscal year (FY 2017), but President Trump threw a wrench into the process by proposing an $18 billion cut to the portion of the budget that includes funds for domestic public services and state and local governments, in order to fund his proposed $33 billion increase in defense and border security, including the border wall.
The lion's share of those cuts, over $7 billion, would come from programs that provide funding for health, labor, human service, and education programs, including eliminating funds for before and after school programs and workers' safety grants through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The cuts include half of the budget, or over $1 billion, from the Community Development Block Grant, which provides funding for local government programs such as Meals on Wheels, infrastructure, and housing. Trump also proposes to cut over a $1 billion from Pell grants, an essential source of aid for low-income students to attend college.
Republican leaders and Democrats alike rejected the cuts as too late and too deep with the fiscal year nearly halfway completed, but they face their own hurdles to finalize spending bills. It is not clear whether Republicans will uphold a standing requirement to ensure that any increase in defense spending will be coupled with an equal increase in domestic spending. We also expect that Republican leaders will attach “poison pill riders” to block important Obama administration regulations, including one that expands the number of workers eligible for overtime pay and one that protects workers’ retirement investments.
AFSCME strongly opposes the President’s proposed deep cuts to funding for public services and the addition of poison pill policy riders on must-pass spending bills.
The Senate followed the House of Representatives in voting 50 to 49 to disapprove one of two Department of Labor (DOL) regulations issued during the Obama administration, which would make it easier for cities and counties to create IRA plans that automatically enroll private sector workers whose employers do not offer a retirement plan. The Congressional Review Act procedure was used to block the rule for local governments. Only Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) voted in opposition to blocking the local government rule, while Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) did not vote, and all Democrats voted to preserve the rule. The bill blocking the rule will now be sent to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.
The resolution to block another rule, making it easier for states to set up such plans, has also passed the House, but has not yet come up for a Senate vote. The new rules were issued to help address the growing retirement security crisis in the country. It’s estimated that as many as 55 million workers do not have employer-sponsored retirement plans, meaning tens of millions of people have little or no money set aside for their retirement. Five states (California, Oregon, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland) and a number of large cities are working on plans to encourage retirement savings.
While House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and President Donald Trump were unable to win approval last week of legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and cut Medicaid, we are not out of the woods yet. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price testified before a House panel on Wednesday and made clear that the administration would seek to dismantle parts of the ACA through regulation and administrative actions. House Republican leaders also have a lawsuit challenging subsidies under the ACA to assist low-income families with out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles and co-pays. Without the subsidies, many of these families will be forced to drop their coverage.
With respect to Medicaid, it is possible that the White House and Republican leaders will demand cuts in return for agreeing to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which is set to expire at the end of September. CHIP was established in the 1990s to provide coverage to low-income children who do not qualify for Medicaid. The ACA, Medicaid and Medicare could all be at risk as GOP leaders and Trump begin work on a plan to cut taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals. They are likely to look at cutting these health programs in order to pay for their tax cut plan.
In a party-line vote of 12 to 11, members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted to advance Alex Acosta’s nomination to be Secretary of the Department of Labor. Acosta’s selection came after the President’s first choice, Andy Puzder, withdrew his name due to strong criticism.
In reference to the vote, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the senior Democrat on the HELP Committee stated, “While there is no question that Alexander Acosta is a very different nominee than Mr. Puzder I continue to have serious concerns, given Mr. Acosta’s professional history, about whether undue political pressure would impact decision-making at the Department should he be confirmed.” She went on to say, “[My] concerns were only heightened at our hearing, when Mr. Acosta refused to take a strong stand on critical issues including expanding overtime pay to more workers, fighting for equal pay, and advocating for investments in job training and other key priorities of the Department of Labor.”
We don’t expect the full Senate to consider the Acosta nomination until after the April congressional recess.
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