Week Ending May 24, 2013
House GOP Majority Proposes New Deep Cuts to Domestic Spending
This week, the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee took the first step towards preparing funding bills for the next fiscal year (FY 2014) by dividing up the austere GOP budget into 12 separate allocations for each funding subcommittee. In a party-line vote, the Committee passed spending levels that if inserted will result in deep cuts to domestic spending.
The overall allocation of $967 billion, a $12 billion cut, was based on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget, which included sequestration spending reductions. The Senate’s allocation is higher at $1.058 trillion because it does not include sequestration cuts. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) violated the Budget Control Act (BCA) by shifting the entirety of the defense sequester to non-defense programs in order to boost defense spending by $28 billion. The results are severe cuts to healthcare, education, labor programs, transportation and infrastructure. AFSCME strongly opposes these devastating cuts.
Labor, Health, Human Services and Education (LHHS) subcommittee ranking Democrat Rosa De Lauro (CT) offered an amendment to replace sequestration with progressive revenues like the “Buffet Rule,” and with cuts to bloated defense programs and direct payments to farmers, but it was defeated along party lines.
The Senate is expected to set funding levels for its 12 subcommittees in mid-June.
Senate Immigration Reform Bill Passes out of Committee
On Tuesday evening, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” (S. 744) to the full Senate. The vote was 13-5, with all Democrats and three Republican senators – Sens. Lindsey Graham (SC), Jeff Flake (AZ) and Orrin Hatch (UT) – voting in favor. Sens. Graham and Flake are members of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” who wrote the legislation; Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) are the other gang members on the Committee. These four senators generally stuck together and voted down amendments they believed would break apart bipartisan support for the bill.
The Committee considered numerous amendments. Those that would have delayed or otherwise weakened the roadmap to citizenship were defeated. In particular, the bill includes strong protections for DREAMers – those undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
The new W-Visa program for low-wage workers that was hammered out between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce remains intact. This includes a reasonable cap on the number of W-Visa holders admitted to the U.S. each year, strong anti-displacement protections, good recruitment requirements of U.S. workers before hiring W-Visa workers, and a prevailing wage requirement. A registry of available jobs, which was part of the labor-business agreement but not included in the bill, was added by amendment so that W-Visa holders who want to switch jobs will have a place to look for available positions.
In order to obtain Senator Hatch’s vote in support for S. 744 reaching the Senate floor, the Committee adopted an amendment by voice vote that weakens protections for U.S. workers in the H-1B visa program for higher-skilled workers (jobs that require at least a college degree or involve computer technology). Senator Hatch’s amendment substantially increases the number of H-1B visas that will be available to employers each year while weakening both U.S. worker recruitment requirements for most employers and anti-displacement protections for current employees. The base bill language limiting outplacement firms from contracting for H-1V visa holders was retained. AFSCME was successful in getting two important provisions into the amendment: 1) special protection against displacement of federal, state and local government employees, with public employers prohibited from displacing employees 90 days before and after filing an H-1B visa petition; and 2) adding to the requirement that employers post available positions on a U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) website a new provision that the USDOL facilitate job postings on state workforce agency websites.
The family-visa provision that removes the cap for green cards holders to petition for their spouse and/or children to come to the U.S. was preserved. Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) withdrew an amendment that would have afforded same-sex couples the same family-visa rights as other couples because the GOP members of the Committee made it clear that the bill would lose GOP support if his amendment passed.
It is expected that S. 744 will reach the Senate floor in early to mid-June, where the bill will again face numerous amendments. AFSCME will continue to work with our labor and community allies to strengthen the bill while strongly advocating for immigration reform legislation that includes a roadmap to citizenship and employment protections for all workers.
House Immigration Legislation Remains in Flux
As of this writing, there are conflicting reports whether the House’s Gang of Eight has reached agreement on a measure they have been drafting for several months. Health care coverage for newly legalized immigrants and using an employment-based system to identify undocumented immigrants as a “trigger” for the path to citizenship have been major issues in contention. The House could pass its own immigration bill, which would have to be reconciled with a Senate bill, or it could take up the Senate’s bill.
House Passes Student Loan Bill that Makes College More Expensive
This week Congress passed H.R. 1911 on a mostly party-line vote. The bill would tie the interest rates on most student loans to market rates, which are variable, instead of fixed throughout the life of the loan. The results would be higher rates on average than under current policy, confusion among borrowers who will not know at what rate they will be required to pay back their loans and more debt for students and parents.
Currently, the interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford student loans is set to double from 3.4% to 6.8% on July 1, but this bill would make students and parents accumulate even more debt than if the rates were to double. AFSCME urged Representatives to oppose the bill, and the President stated he would veto H.R. 1911 if it came before him.
The Senate is expected to address the issue of student loans after the Memorial Day recess. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has filed an amendment to the Farm Bill which would extend current loan rates on subsidized Stafford loans for an additional two years while Congress works on a long-term solution. Since the House and Senate are opposed to each other's proposals and there is no bipartisan attempt to work together, it seems likely at this point that subsidized Stafford loan rates will double in July.
Senate Starts Consideration of Farm Bill
The Senate this week spent most of its time debating the Farm Bill which the Senate Agriculture Committee approved last week. Amendments to both increase and cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were turned back. An amendment by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to replace the $4 billion reduction in SNAP benefits with limits on crop insurance reimbursements to providers failed 26-70 while an amendment by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) to adopt the deeper SNAP cuts approved by the House Agriculture Committee was defeated by a vote of 40-58. Sen. James Inhoff’s (R-OK) effort to convert the SNAP program into a block grant also went down 36 to 60.
Senate Panel Endorses NLRB Nominations
Amid the ongoing legal controversy over President Obama’s January 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted to approve a slate of five nominations to the Board, which will be sent to the Senate floor for confirmation. The Committee approved current NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce and two GOP members, Harry Johnson and Philip Miscimarra. The more controversial Democrats who were appointed in January 2012, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, were also approved.
National Council on Disability Issues Report on Harm of Medicaid Per Capita Caps
On May 22, the National Council on Disability issued a report on the potential impact of capping federal funds for state Medicaid programs. The report, A Medicaid Block Grant Program: Implications for People With Disabilities, found that per capita cap proposals are similar to block grants because they would shift a larger and larger share of total program costs to states and possibly to beneficiaries. The report concluded that capping federal Medicaid spending would place states and beneficiaries in a far more vulnerable financial position than they are in today. AFSCME opposes shifting additional Medicaid costs onto states or limiting services, especially long-term supports and services.
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