Week Ending April 5, 2019

House Approves Reauthorization of Violence Against Women Act

  • House Votes to Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)
  • House Condemns Attacks on Health Care
  • House Budget Committee Increases Funding
  • McConnell Pushes to Further Pack the Courts
  • Senate Rejects Aid to Puerto Rico
  • House Panel Moves to Lower Health Care Costs and Rx Drug Prices
  • Short-term Funding for Behavioral Health Clinics Passes Congress

House Votes to Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

  • House Passage: By a bipartisan vote of  263 to 158 (including 33 Republicans), the House passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) (H.R.1585), which would strengthen legal protections and increase resources for all victims of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. 
  • Improvements Made: Congress has periodically reauthorized VAWA and improved the vital services for the people the law helps. In its 25-year history, the law’s mandates have increased the number of tools to combat violence against women and improved the ways in which our law enforcement and community-support systems respond to survivors. Most importantly, the law has been strengthened to hold abusers accountable.

What You Need to Know: VAWA expired in February during the 35-day government shutdown. H.R. 1585 seeks to improve collaboration among the criminal justice system, research organizations, private organizations, schools, social service agencies and public health organizations where AFSCME members serve and work. It also seeks to expand services for older survivors and to make sure that all 50 states and territories include unemployment insurance and housing protections for victims to help them maintain economic security. See AFSCME’s support letter to House members.

House Condemns Attacks on Health Care 

  • House Passage: By a vote of 240 to 186, the House passed a resolution (H. Res. 271) expressing disapproval of the Trump administration’s actions in a federal appellate court case to invalidate every provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
  • Legal Challenge: Twenty Republican state attorneys general brought the case, Texas v. United States, claiming that the ACA was unworkable without the mandated penalties. Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) previously said the individual mandate, along with the law’s preexisting condition rules, should be struck down, but that the rest of the law should be allowed to stand. However, in a rare mid-appeal shift, the DOJ now says the entire ACA is invalid. If the courts uphold this position, millions of Americans would lose health care coverage and our health care system would be severely disrupted.
  • Next Steps: The resolution is not binding, but it is an important expression of the sense of the House that the administration’s actions in court “are an unacceptable assault on the health care of the American people,” and that the DOJ should reverse its position in the case.

What You Need to Know: Across the political spectrum, lawmakers claim they want to protect individuals with preexisting conditions from the pre-ACA abuses by health insurance companies. But now the DOJ says the entire ACA should be overturned through judicial fiat. More importantly for AFSCME members, the House has gone on record, objecting to this attack on health care coverage for millions of Americans.

House Budget Committee Increases Funding

  • Spending Caps Lifted: As the first step in the process to pass funding bills, the House Budget Committee voted 19 to 17 on H.R. 2021 to significantly raise budget caps for this year and next. Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California), Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) each opposed the defense increases in the bill and pushed for more funding for domestic programs. In the end, they joined all committee Republicans to oppose the bill but are still working to improve it.
  • What the bill does: The measure provides equal increases for both defense and nondefense spending. Progressive Democrats are pushing for larger increases in domestic investments, which have not received the same funding boosts as defense spending in recent years. Restrictive budget caps would have cut  domestic investments by $55 billion, resulting in deep cuts to programs that working families rely on for health care, education, transportation, job training, housing assistance and more. Since federal funds are responsible for more than 30% of state budgets and more than 20% of state and local budgets combined, this would have been devastating to working families and hurt the work of AFSCME members. 
  • Next steps: The full House is expected  to vote on the bill next week. Even if it passes, the Senate would also need to raise the caps and the president would have to sign it into law. The Senate funding bill passed last week by that chamber’s budget committee does not seek to adjust the caps, but it does acknowledge the possibility of subsequent action to increase them. 

What You Need to Know: The path ahead to increase the spending caps and pass funding bills in a timely fashion remains rocky. The House has taken an important first step, but the Senate and the president also need to act. The president’s recent budget proposal includes current tight spending caps, an indication that he would reject this effort to raise the caps and possibly precipitate another shutdown.

McConnell Pushes to Further Pack the Courts 

  • Senate Passage: On Thursday, the Senate voted to reduce the number of hours of post-cloture debate time from 30 to two for District Court judicial nominees. The final vote was 51 to 48 with two Republicans – Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mike Lee (Utah) – deciding to join Democrats to oppose the rules change. 
  • Nuclear Option: The decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) to put this so-called “nuclear option” resolution on the floor demonstrates his willingness to scrap Senate rules and tradition to advance hard-right nominees to the courts. His decision also puts partisan party politics over the basic rights of all Americans.

What You Need to Know:  This is the second time in two years that McConnell has decided to make it harder for the Senate to have a full debate on judicial nominees and would-be executive-level appointees. As a result, practically anyone the president puts forward can be rushed through the Senate with little debate on their qualifications merits and without a thorough examination of their judicial philosophies. Many of the judges already confirmed, as well as those awaiting confirmation, have often ruled against or held harmful viewpoints when it comes to the rights of workers, consumers, LGBTQIA+ persons, immigrants, women and people with disabilities.

Senate Rejects Aid to Puerto Rico

  • Senate Impasse:  The Senate, on a procedural vote, rejected a bill to provide $13.45 billion in disaster relief for Puerto Rico, Nebraska and Iowa. While the measure included $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, it failed to include adequate aid to rebuild the island after the devastating damage it sustained from Hurricane Maria in 2017.
  • House-Passed Bill Also Rejected: Earlier this year, the Democratically-controlled House passed a recovery bill that provided additional money for Puerto Rico. The Senate rejected that bill on a procedural vote as Republicans and Democrats could not agree on a relief plan. 
  • White House Opposition: President Donald Trump opposed sending more food and infrastructure help to Puerto Rico and unfairly criticized the government of the island territory. He also wrongly tweeted that Puerto Rico had received enough aid, citing an inflated, incorrect figure.

What You Need to Know: The votes on two Senate measures were procedural and needed support from 60 senators to advance to a full floor vote. Neither won the support required. It’s unclear whether Congress can overcome the impasse and end the delay in approving disaster aid, which AFSCME strongly supports.

House Panel Moves to Lower Health Care Costs and Rx Drug Prices

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved 12 bills designed to lower health care costs for working families.

  • Lower Drug Prices: Half of the bills seek to reduce prescription drug prices by removing barriers that block competing generic products from coming to market sooner. These bills would help all Americans, whether they get their health care coverage through their jobs, Medicaid, Medicare or some other way. Increasing competition by increasing the use of generic and similar versions of brand name prescription medicines makes sense under the current system. 
  • Lower Health Care Costs: Another six bills focus on lowering Americans’ health care costs, protecting people living with preexisting conditions and reversing some of the most harmful administrative actions to sabotage the ACA.

What You Need to Know:  The House is queuing up several bipartisan legislative proposals to stop brand name prescription drug companies from blocking lower-priced generic versions from being available to consumers. These proposals are important steps but increasing market competition through generics may not be enough to lower prescription drug prices. To really lower them, we must change current law, which allows drug companies to set prices as high as they want to drive up their profits.

Short-term Behavioral Health Care Clinics Funding

  • Senate Passage: Legislation to extend funding by $14 million for Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHC) in Oregon and Oklahoma passed the Senate this week and is now ready for the president to sign into law. The Medicaid Services Investment and Accountability Act of 2019 (H.R. 1839) would push the funding expiration date to June 30 for Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon and Pennsylvania. The bill would also extend the spousal-impoverishment protections for a spouse whose partner relies on home- and community-based services and is enrolled in the Money Follows the Person program, which provides in-home support and services to individuals with disabilities.

What You Need to Know:  AFSCME urged Congress to avert a funding cliff for CCBHCs. These clinics provide treatment for all who come into the clinic, whether they have public, private or no insurance. They treat individuals with severe mental health issues and complex health needs. AFSCME will continue to press for funding for all CCBHCs through Sept. 30 and into fiscal year 2020.

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