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Week Ending November 1, 2013

Budget Conference Kicks Off; Deficit Keeps Going Down

The joint House-Senate Budget Conference Committee, charged with resolving long-standing differences between the House and Senate-passed Budget Resolutions as part of the agreement to end the government shutdown, held its first official meeting this week. The 29 appointed members each made opening statements and decided to meet again on November 13. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) immediately dismissed the option of raising revenues through any budget agreement, while Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) noted his openness to revenues that do not raise tax rates, leaving open the options of closing tax loopholes and establishing new fees. Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) focused on finding replacement budget “savings” to end the across-the-board sequester cuts, noting that setting a short-term budget limit should be “the absolute minimum” task essential to these negotiations. She and other conference committee Democrats are united in calling for budget investments in job creation and pressing for additional progressive revenues. GOP leaders have largely balked at replacing the sequester, claiming it is needed to reduce what they assert is an out of control deficit.

However, the Treasury Department reported this week that the federal budget deficit for the current fiscal year is $680 billion, a drop of over $400 billion since 2012. Overall, the deficit is less than half of what it was at when President Obama took office in 2009 and the economy was in a free-fall. It represents the fastest deficit decline since the end of World War II. In reality, spending cuts are slowing economic growth significantly and contributing to stubbornly high levels of long-term unemployment.

AFSCME is strongly urging Congress and the conference committee to repeal the sequester, invest in programs that create jobs and grow the economy, create tax policy that ensures everyone pays their fair share, and protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from harmful changes.

Pressure Builds for House Vote on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Advocates and House members from across the political spectrum continued their efforts this week to get the House GOP leadership to hold a vote on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). Three Republican House members – Jeff Denham (R-CA), David Valadao (R-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) – broke ranks and cosponsored H.R. 15, CIR legislation that previously had only Democratic cosponsors. The bill, which incorporates most of the bipartisan Senate-passed bill and adds bipartisan House border security legislation, now has 190 cosponsors.

Also this week, approximately 600 business leaders, law enforcement officers and religious leaders flooded the House, calling on lawmakers to act quickly to pass CIR. They met with about 120 House members spanning 40 states. This large contingent of business leaders demonstrates the rift within the Republican Party between the Tea Party members who staunchly oppose immigration reform and mainstream Republicans who understand that our economy will continue to suffer if we do not fix our broken immigration system.

Timing and the path forward in the House are still very uncertain. Sixteen work days remain on the House schedule between now and the end of the year. This is more than enough time to hold a vote either on a comprehensive bill like H.R. 15 or on one or more so-called piecemeal bills, if Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has the political will to move forward. If the House fails to take up CIR this year, AFSCME and our allies will continue our push for this needed legislation in 2014.

House members are back in their districts this week and they need to hear from you!  Please call your Representative and urge her/him to demand that the House leadership hold a vote on immigration reform before the end of the year.  You can call toll-free at 1-888-930-0113.

November 1 Brings SNAP Benefit Cuts to Millions of Children, Seniors, and People with Disabilities While More Cuts Loom

Just as the House and Senate Agriculture Committees begin their negotiations this week to resolve differences in their respective farm bills, which include renewal of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), nearly 48 million SNAP recipients — 87% of whom live in households with children, seniors, or people with disabilities – will see a reduction in the amount of their SNAP benefits.

The reduction is a result of the expiration of the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost in SNAP benefits which ends on November 1, 2013. The November 1 benefit reductions will be substantial and are unprecedented in their reach and size.  A household of three, such as a mother with two children, will lose $29 a month, the equivalent of about 16 meals a month based on the cost of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s “Thrifty Food Plan.”

Even larger cuts could be on the way.  In contrast to the Senate farm bill, which made more limited reductions in the SNAP program, the farm bill approved in the House would remove approximately 3.8 million people from the SNAP program in 2014 and an average of 3 million people each year over the coming decade.  Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, has vowed to hold the line against the House reductions as much as possible. Jobless and low-wage workers would be hit especially hard if these cuts were enacted. They would be denied SNAP benefits even if they cannot find work in a weak economy or fail to earn enough to make ends meet.  And, to make matters worse, some could also lose unemployment insurance benefits if Congress fails to continue the federal extended benefits program which expires at the end of December.   

Senate Republicans Block President Obama’s Nominations, Potentially Setting up New Fight on Senate Rules

The Senate voted 56 to 42 to block a procedural motion allowing an up or down vote on President Obama’s nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) for Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). While every Democrat supported a vote, only two Republicans also did: Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Richard Burr (R-NC). This was the first time since before the Civil War that a current member of Congress was rejected by the Senate for this type of high-ranking position. The FHFA oversees Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae which are key to influencing America’s housing policies and the continuing recovery from the sub-prime mortgage meltdown that triggered the great recession in 2008. The Senate also voted 56 to 42 to block the nomination of Patricia Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is often labeled America’s second highest court (after the U.S. Supreme Court). While every Democrat supported holding a vote, only one Republican voted to proceed, thus falling short of the 60 votes needed to end debate.

This GOP obstructionism of qualified nominees is problematic and directly challenges the July 2013 agreement between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on executive nominations. If Senate Republicans continue preventing an up or down vote on nominees, some Senate Democrats and outside interest groups are considering attempting to change the Senate rules to make it harder for a minority of senators to block nominations. Majority Leader Reid issued a veiled threat and Vice-President Biden said, "I think it's worth considering.”

Senate Confirms NLRB General Counsel

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed by a mostly party-line vote of 55 to 44 the nomination of Richard Griffin, Jr. to be the top prosecutor at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The Board oversees union elections and polices unfair labor practices. The NLRB’s general counsel plays a critical role as a gatekeeper, investigating alleged labor violations and deciding which cases to prosecute. Since the Senate confirmed all of the Administration’s Board member nominees in July, it now has its full allocation of members for the first time in a decade.

 

New Senator Corey Booker Sworn In

Cory Booker (D-NJ) was sworn in as the new senator from New Jersey. Booker, the former mayor of Newark, won a special election to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who died in June. Booker defeated Republican opponent Steve Lonegan and replaces interim Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa (R-NJ). Booker’s election returns the Senate Democratic caucus to the 55 seats they had before Lautenberg’s death, including Independents Angus King (I-ME) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Booker will serve out the remainder of Lautenberg's term, which ends in 2014, when he is expected to run for re-election.  

Social Security Advocates Hold Conference on Emerging  Retirement Crisis

After several years of being on the defensive fighting off proposals to cut Social Security benefits, Social Security advocates held a conference on October 30 designed to build support for increasing Social Security benefits to address the emerging retirement income crisis.  Panelists pointed out that, except for Social Security, the retirement system in the United States has significantly deteriorated, leaving approximately 55.5 million workers without any employer-sponsored retirement plan in which they can participate, and 75% of Americans nearing retirement with less than $30,000 in their personal retirement accounts.  Current calls to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits they argued will only make this bleak picture even worse.

A number of senators and members of the House have introduced legislation to raise more revenue by lifting the limit on wages subject the Social Security tax, now set at $113,000, in order to improve benefits while also strengthening the financial condition of the Social Security trust fund. 

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