Issues / Legislation » Legislative Weekly Reports

Week Ending November 17, 2014

Lame-Duck Session of Congress Convenes

The House and Senate reconvened on Nov. 12 for the post-election lame-duck session.  The primary goal is to complete action on the federal budget.  Funding under the existing short-term spending bill, or “continuing resolution” (CR), will end after Dec. 11.  Congress must approve a combined “omnibus” funding bill for the remainder of this fiscal year that began Oct. 1, pass another short-term CR, or risk another government shutdown. AFSCME strongly prefers passage of an omnibus bill over a CR because an omnibus provides an opportunity to increase funding levels for vital public programs and services.  Congress may also try to clear a host of other issues, including approval of the Keystone Pipeline, lapsed business tax provisions known as tax extenders, and other items.   

GOP Will Control Both Chambers of Congress

GOP leaders will have to wait until January to assume control of the Senate, along with their existing control of the House of Representatives, but they wasted no time in electing their leaders.  Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was unanimously elected to the post of Senate Majority Leader when the new Congress convenes. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) was elected Minority Leader for the Democrats. One notable change in Democratic leadership was the election of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who will serve as strategic policy adviser for the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

As a result of the midterm elections, Republicans gained eight senate seats after Republican Dan Sullivan was declared the winner over Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK).  The race in Louisiana will go to an early December runoff between Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA).  The new Senate composition favors Republicans by a margin of 53 to 46 (including the two Independents who caucus with the Democrats).

In the House, Republicans gained 12 seats and will control the House by a margin of 244 to 186, with five seats still undecided.  The status quo is expected for leadership in the House with Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) retaining control of their respective caucuses.   

Child Care Bill Proceeds in Senate

Prior to the midterm elections, the House approved a bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG, S. 1086), but Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) blocked the bill from advancing in the Senate. This week the Senate voted to consider the bill in a procedural vote of 96 to 1, with only Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) dissenting.

If the Senate passes the bill, as expected, this would be the first time CCDBG has been reauthorized since 1996. The legislation contains provisions that require background checks for providers, pre-licensure inspections, comprehensive consumer education on parents’ child care options, health and safety training, initial eligibility for child care subsidies lasting at least 12 months, at least 70% of funding used for direct services, and targeted funding for quality measures.  The bill also encourages states to pay providers for children’s sick days and unscheduled days off.  And, it adds an inspection requirement for license-exempt child care providers, but it is unclear if states would have flexibility to determine when these inspections will begin. 

AFSCME continues to press for increased funding for CCDBG to assist states and providers as they prepare to comply with the new requirements.   

Senate Panel Examines Emergency Funding Request to Fight Ebola 

The Senate panel charged with writing federal spending bills held a hearing on President Obama’s request for $6.18 billion in emergency funds to respond domestically and internationally to prevent the spread of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  AFSCME strongly supports this request and has called on Congress to reverse years of cuts to state and local health departments and to ensure that hospitals and other employers are protecting health care workers and first responders at risk of Ebola exposure.  Additional information on Ebola and protecting workers at high risk for exposure can be found at AFSCME’s website.  

Senate GOP Leaders Block Current NLRB Member; President Obama Nominates Former Sen. Harkin Staffer

As Congress returned to Washington last week after the midterm elections, Senate GOP leaders brought a rousing chorus against Sharon Block, President Obama’s nominee to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The President first appointed Block during a congressional recess and she has been an NLRB board member since 2012. During that time, the NLRB has seen its authority curbed by congressional GOP leaders who aim to weaken this critical agency that enforces federal labor laws.

In place of Block, President Obama is nominating Lauren McFarren to serve on the board. Ms. McFarren is currently Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) Chief Labor Counsel on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which he chairs.  The President would like the Senate to confirm this NLRB post before the end of the year. 

Rumors Abound on Timing and Content of President Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration

In September, President Obama pledged to take Executive Action (EA) on immigration reform after the midterm elections and before the end of the year.  Such action was made necessary by Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation to fix our broken immigration system.  After the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill in June 2013, the House GOP leadership has continued to refuse to hold a vote on that bill (S. 744) or on similar bipartisan House legislation (H.R. 15).

As the Department of Homeland Security and White House staffs have been working on policies to include in EA, AFSCME and our labor and community allies have strongly urged the president to use the full breadth of his executive power to stop the daily deportations of law-abiding immigrant workers and their families.  Such action would likely be modeled on the successful Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program President Obama established two years ago which has allowed approximately 600,000 previously undocumented young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children to attain temporary, renewable  legal status.  They now work and travel freely and no longer live in fear of deportation.  We have also urged the president to include protections for immigrant workers on the job, as well as to ensure that the fees charged to adjust immigration status are reasonable.

Several news outlets have reported on alleged leaked information on the timing and content of EA, but there is no confirmation from the Obama administration.  What is clear is the president has the authority to enforce laws, including immigration laws, with discretion.

The GOP leadership in both the House and Senate are threatening far-reaching retaliation in response to President Obama’s expected EA, even though former presidents have similarly used their executive authority.  Among these threats is attaching language to the bill that funds the government that would prevent the EA from going into effect, thus setting the stage for another government shutdown.   

Affordable Care Act Enrollment Period Set to Begin

The open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) plans begins this Saturday, Nov. 15 and runs through Feb. 15.  The enrollment application on the federal health exchange web site has been shortened and made easier for consumers to complete.  Overall, there are 25% more plans being offered on the exchange, giving consumers in most parts of the country more options.  The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be working with faith and community groups to enroll new participants, as well as encouraging current enrollees to revisit the web site to assess new plans and check on the amount of the tax credit they are eligible for in the next year.  Importantly, HHS is encouraging applicants to go online sooner, rather than waiting until the end of the year or close to the February deadline.

In addition to those who are obtaining coverage through the federal and state health exchanges, millions have gained coverage through the expansion of the Medicaid program.  However, two dozen states have not yet expanded their Medicaid programs.  Researchers at the Urban Institute estimate that 5.7 million people will be deprived of health insurance coverage by 2016, due to the failure of their states to expand Medicaid.  Moreover, these states are forgoing billions in federal funds that could boost their economies, especially jobs in the health care sector.   

U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Rule on New Challenge to Affordable Care Act

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear a new challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  This challenge is based on the argument that tax credits for purchasing health coverage are only available to consumers who obtain coverage through state-operated health exchanges and are not available to those who purchase coverage through the federal exchange.  Without tax credits, coverage would not be affordable for millions who obtain coverage through the federal exchange.

The law envisioned that each state would establish its own exchange, but created a fallback federal exchange in the event that a state did not establish its own.  As a consequence of the 2010 election, 36 states opted not to set up an exchange.

Two different challenges have been making their way through the federal appeals court process.  In one case, the district court ruled that the structure of the ACA made clear that tax credits were to be available to all those eligible, whether they obtained coverage through a state or federal exchange.  In another district, a divided panel of three judges initially ruled that the tax credits were only available through state exchanges.  But the full panel of judges in the district vacated that decision and scheduled a hearing for December.  Many court followers were surprised that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case before a final decision is issued on the second challenge. 

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