Week Ending May 17, 2013
Senate Moving Full Steam Ahead on Immigration Reform
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held two sessions debating and voting on many amendments to the comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744) authored by the bipartisan Gang of Eight. They focused on the bill’s provisions related to employment-based visa programs and a mandatory electronic, employment-based immigration verification system called E-Verify.
The new W-visa program in the bill was carefully developed and agreed to by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. However, a provision in the agreement that requires the development of a registry of available jobs for those W-visa holders who would like to switch jobs was left out of the bill. The Committee passed an amendment by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) which fixed this omission.
S. 744 increases the annual cap for H-1B visas – jobs requiring at least a college degree or in the technology field -- from the current 65,000 to as much as 180,000. An amendment put forward by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) that would have increased the cap to 325,000 annually was defeated. The Committee passed Senator Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) amendment that requires employers’ internet job postings to attract U.S. workers to include the job title, job description and location of work. Also passed was an amendment co-sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Chris Coons (D-DE) that increases H-1B employer fees from $500 to $1,000 and improves Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) training programs. And, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) amendment passed that requires the establishment of an employee toll-free hotline and web access to report H-1B violations.
S. 744 requires that all employers use an E-Verify system to ensure they only hire people who are authorized to work in the U.S. Currently, less than 10% of employers voluntarily use E-Verify. The system has had accuracy problems, with job seekers and employees falsely identified as not eligible to work. In recognition of the enormous ramp-up required to include all employers, S. 744 requires a methodical phase-in of E-Verify over approximately five years. Senator Grassley’s amendment that would have reduced the phase-in period to 18 months was defeated.
S. 744 requires undocumented immigrants to provide proof of employment to gain legal status and ultimately citizenship. Senator Richard Blumenthal’s (D-CT) successful amendment prohibits employers from withholding pay stubs from employees who request them. Senator Klobuchar’s amendment to allow victims of domestic violence to petition for a green card apart from the abusing spouse also passed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will come back on Monday to continue debate and votes on additional amendments to S. 744. The Committee may meet every day next week, possibly late into the evenings, with the goal of completing committee consideration of the bill no later than May 24. After the bill passes out of committee, it will move to the Senate floor for further consideration and hopefully final passage.
House Gang of Eight Reach Agreement on Moving Forward with Comprehensive Immigration Reform Legislation
On Thursday night, the House’s bipartisan Gang of Eight reached an agreement in principle on a comprehensive immigration reform bill although some highly contested issues could be addressed separately, among them employment visa programs and Affordable Care Act coverage for aspiring citizens. It remains unclear whether the House will hold separate votes on various aspects of the bill or one vote on the bill as a whole. Ultimately, the Senate and House must pass the same bill to send to President Obama for his signature.
Deficit Falls 24%, Yet Sequestration Continues
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) updated their deficit projection for this year, and it is 24% less than projected in February and the lowest level since 2008. Prominent economists warn that the deficit is dropping too fast due to the austerity measures of sequestration and tight spending limits. They argue more investments are needed to bolster the sluggish economy and support job growth. Further, the Federal Reserve recently announced, “fiscal policy is restraining economic growth.” So far, this reality has failed to take the steam out of congressional deficit hawks who refuse to alter or repeal the sequester.
The House GOP will move forward on its FY 2014 funding bill using a cap that assumes continuation of the full sequester. Because the Senate is not factoring sequestration into its cap, its funding bills have an additional $91 billion compared to the House. The difference will likely delay passage of FY 2014 funding bills past the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.
House Votes to Repeal Affordable Care Act (Again)
By a vote of 229 to 195, the House voted along party lines to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Despite numerous votes in the last Congress and the near impossibility that the bill will be taken up by the Senate, the vote was scheduled by GOP House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in order to give newly elected GOP members an opportunity to vote to deny millions of families access to health care. Repealing the health care law would also increase the federal deficit by $109 billion over ten years. The ACA has already improved the lives of more than 100 million Americans both young and old, and it will expand insurance coverage to 25 million uninsured Americans in the next few years. The law will also improve the quality of care, halt skyrocketing health care costs and eliminate the worst insurance company abuses. For information on how the ACA is making a difference in your state go to: http://www.healthcare.gov/law/information-for-you/index.html.
House and Senate Agriculture Committees Approve Farm Bill with Nutrition Cuts
Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have approved a Farm Bill that includes cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The House bill includes $20 billion in cuts to SNAP, which represent 53% of the savings in the legislation. An effort by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to strike the reduction was defeated 17 to 27 with three Democrats, ranking member Colin Peterson (D-MN) and Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) and Mike McIntyre (D-NC), voting against the amendment. In contrast, the Senate reduces SNAP spending by $4 billion but avoids harmful benefit cuts. Efforts by GOP Committee members to make deeper cuts were defeated.
The Senate bill is scheduled for the Senate floor the week of May 20, and the House bill is expected to reach the House floor in June. SNAP benefits are crucial for working and non-working lower income Americans. Over 80% of SNAP households have gross income below the poverty line, and over 40% have gross income that is less than half the poverty line.
Rep. Schakowsky (D-IL) Introduces Nurse Staffing Bill
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced the National Nursing Shortage Reform and Patient Advocacy Act (H.R. 1907), which would improve the delivery of safe and quality health care by requiring hospitals to meet minimum nurse-to-patient staffing levels. A similar bill (S. 739) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
Perez Nomination Advances to Full Senate
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee cleared the nomination of Thomas E. Perez, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Labor Department. The vote was 12 to 10, along party lines. GOP leaders delayed the panel vote twice, raising the nominee’s management of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and lawsuits he pursued against Republican-backed voting laws in South Carolina and Texas. The full Senate will consider the nomination next, where Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), has already threatened to demand a 60-vote threshold on Perez’ confirmation.
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