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The House and Senate will be in recess for the next two weeks. The Weekly Report will resume on April 16.
Budget Plans Move Through Congress
As the Congress rushed toward a two-week Easter break, both the House and Senate approved similar $1.7 trillion budget plans to guide them through the rest of the year. Both the House and Senate bills crafted by the Republican congressional leadership call for large new tax cuts which would cost nearly $800 billion over 10 years. The plans also call for tight spending limits on domestic spending and increased defense and education spending. And while they declared Social Security reserves off-limits, they do nothing more to address Social Security financing concerns and fail to do anything to address Medicare's financial problems.
In the Senate, a series of Democratic amendments to block tax cuts and address Social Security and Medicare were all rejected. An amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), which would have prohibited tax cuts or spending increases unless Social Security and Medicare concerns are first addressed, was rejected on a party-line vote of 45-54. An amendment by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) to direct 40 percent of non-Social Security surplus to Medicare was also rejected on an identical vote. A third amendment by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) to block any tax cuts until Medicare is addressed was also rejected. The Senate did adopt an amendment by Christopher Dodd (D-CT) to reduce the 10 year tax cut by $10 billion and reallocate the money to child care. The Senate bill was adopted by a vote of 55-44. Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) was the only senator to cross party lines and vote for the resolution.
In the House, all three alternative budgets were rejected, one by Budget Committee Democrats, one by conservative Democrats, and President Clinton's budget. The final vote was 221-208, largely along party lines.
After the two-week Easter recess, the House and Senate must reconcile the minor differences in their budget plans and come to a final agreement.
We had over 400 leaders and activists in attendance at the AFSCME Biennial Legislative Conference. They heard from President Bill Clinton as well as Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress. The delegates lobbied their Members of Congress on AFSCME key legislative priorities: Social Security and Medicare, the Patients' Bill of Rights, privatization and the federal budget.
Patients' Bill of Rights
The Health and Environment Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee held its first hearing on patient protections this week. The Commerce Committee is not expected to consider legislation for several weeks.
In the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman William V. Roth (R-DE) and Ranking Member Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) continue to work on a bill which would create standards for processes that consumers could use to appeal a plan's decision to deny treatment. This legislation will have a very narrow focus and will not address many of the abuses in managed care. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to consider this legislation at the end of April.
Health Care Organizing
On Thursday, Reps. Tom Campbell (R-CA) and John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation which would lift antitrust restrictions on private practice physicians and other independent contractors in health care in order to allow them to negotiate collectively with managed care companies over the terms of their contracts. AFSCME/Federation of Physicians and Dentists (FPD) member, Michael Connair, M.D., spoke at a press conference announcing the bill along with Reps. Campbell and Conyers.
Emergency Supplemental Spending Bill Headed to Conference
The House and Senate passed different versions of the emergency supplemental spending bill needed to provide international disaster aid and farm aid. The Senate bill is about $1 billion more costly than the House measure. The Senate bill, unlike the House bill, includes spending offsets that cut into domestic programs, including TANF, food stamps, public housing and community development block grants. The House bill passed on a largely party-line vote, but only after Republican leaders forced members to switch their votes.
This week, key House GOP leaders announced that they would introduce legislation next month which will include a plan to establish private investment accounts. Currently, the GOP leadership has pledged support for private investment accounts, but has not revealed the details of their specific plan. There are several different proposals for individual investment accounts. Some call for diverting part of the revenues generated by the Social Security payroll tax into individual accounts. Others would keep the whole payroll tax in the Social Security Trust Fund, but would use the surplus to create individual private accounts. Either plan would weaken the existing Social Security program for current and future beneficiaries.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Fair Pay Act (S. 702) on March 24th. The legislation seeks to eliminate wage discrimination based upon sex, race or national origin. S. 702 would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to make it illegal for employers to discriminate against women and minorities by paying them less in jobs that are comparable in skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.
Government Pension Offset
Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and 117 bipartisan cosponsors renewed efforts to modify government pension offset provisions that currently ravage benefits for approximately 266,000 retirees and widows who are eligible for both civil service pensions and Social Security spousal benefits, at a press conference. Jefferson's legislation (H.R. 1217) would allow pensioners and widows affected by government pension offset provisions to receive a minimum $1,200 per month before offset provisions could be imposed.
Mary Steele, representing AFSCME Retiree Chapter 1184 in Ohio, made a compelling statement at the press conference about her experience with the Government Pension Offset (GPO). As a result of the GPO, her spousal benefit was reduced by two-thirds of her public pension. This leaves her with a Social Security benefit of only $92.00 a month, of which she has to deduct a Medicare premium of $45.50 monthly.
Collective Bargaining for Correctional Officers
Reps. Dale Kildee (D-MI) and Bob Ney (R-OH) have reintroduced The Public Safety Employee-Employer Cooperation Act (H.R. 1093), providing for a national law to establish the right of public safety officers, including corrections officers, to bargain over wages, hours, and working conditions. In addition, it would require that labor disputes be settled through mediation and voluntary conciliation, prohibit strikes and lockouts; empower the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to help resolve disputes and assure compliance; protect existing certifications, elections, and collective bargaining agreements; and preserve management rights.
Last year, AFSCME helped attract over 200 cosponsors for this legislation, but the subcommittee chairman refused to take up the bill. Since then, the leadership of the subcommittee has changed, thereby increasing the chance that the Kildee-Ney collective bargaining bill will make its way through the legislative process.
The House set the stage for a bitter conference battle with the Senate on legislation (S. 280, H.R. 800) that would give states greater flexibility to spend federal education dollars. House members agreed, by voice vote, to send the measure to conference. But they narrowly rejected, 205-222, largely along party lines, a Democratic attempt to reject Senate-passed language that would allow local districts to redirect funds now set aside for President Clinton's class size reduction initiative for special education programs. President Clinton said he would "vigorously oppose" any GOP effort to overhaul the 1998 law providing funds for the class-size initiative.
The House passed the Federal Retirement Coverage Correction Act (H.R. 416). The bill rectifies certain retirement coverage errors effecting federal employees. Specifically, the legislation affects those employees who were incorrectly placed in the wrong retirement system. It will allow employees to remain in their current plan or change to the plan that they originally should have been placed in. Employees would be compensated for any lost benefits.