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Senate Votes Against Reducing Gas Tax
In a setback to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), the Senate approved a "sense of the Senate" amendment declaring that the fiscal 2001 budget resolution should not assume a 4.3 cents per gallon reduction in the federal gasoline tax. The 66-34 vote may not kill Lott's legislation (S. 2285) to reduce the gas tax because some senators said a vote on the bill itself could have a different outcome. However, it was a clear sign that many in both parties fear the proposed tax cut would drain highway construction funding and decimate state government budgets as well. In the end, 22 Republicans voted with 44 Democrats to adopt the amendment. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-DE) was the only Democrat to oppose it.
Patients’ Bill of Rights Talks Stall
Negotiations in the patients' rights bill conference committee have ground to a halt after failing to reach any additional agreements since mid-March. Thus far, the conferees have only settled on three consumer protection issues. Over the last three weeks, the discussions have centered on the external appeals process by which patients could appeal refusals by plans to authorize care recommended by physicians. Senate Republican leaders insist on a process which would allow plans to virtually rig the appeals process in their favor, while Democrats have argued for an independent procedure which would allow third-party medical experts to make decisions based on the needs of the patient and accepted medical practice.
A small group of Republican and Democratic leaders of the conference committee met on Thursday to discuss where common ground might be found for continued negotiations. However, Democratic conferees are wary of agreeing to additional consumer protections without first addressing who would be covered by those protections. Republican conferees continue to insist that the decision on the scope of coverage of the bill be left to last. The Republican leadership appears to be maneuvering to bring a series of consumer protections to the Senate floor without including any enforcement mechanisms and limiting the application of the protections to families in self-funded plans sponsored by private sector employers only.
Internet Sales Tax Collection Debate Heats Up
The issue of whether to apply state taxes to Internet purchases may be heating up in Congress. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) has introduced a new bill (S. 2255) to extend the current moratorium on new Internet taxes for another five years. The Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce created by Congress two years ago has recommended an extension of the moratorium that was originally put into place when the Commission was created. It was hoped that the Commission would have made a more sweeping recommendation, however its work became hopelessly deadlocked over the controversial subject. Meanwhile, McCain and others in Congress say more time is needed to sort things out and, until then, there should be an extension even though the existing moratorium does not expire until October 2001. AFSCME, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), the National Governors Association (NGA) and others are concerned that the longer we go without an effort to enforce the collection of existing sales taxes that are already due on Internet purchases, the harder it will be to get such taxes collected. The longer taxes are not collected the more revenues will be lost to state and local governments.
Pressure Increases to Move the Minimum Wage Bill
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) offered a sense of the Senate amendment to the Senate FY 2001 budget resolution today (S.Con.Res. 101) endorsing an increase in the minimum wage. Sense of the Senate resolutions are not binding, but demonstrate political support and increase the likelihood for later passage. The conference on the minimum wage bill has been delayed because of failure to agree to separate the Senate-passed minimum wage proposal, $1 over three years, from the Bankruptcy bill in which it is contained. The House passed a $1 increase to be phased in over two years.
Medicare Prescription Drugs - Let the Games Begin
The Senate has taken the first of what promises to be a long list of votes on the issue of Medicare prescription drugs. The Senate rejected an amendment, offered by Sen. Charles Robb (D-VA), to delay any broad tax cut until prescription drug coverage has been added to Medicare. The vote was 51-49 in favor of the amendment, but supporters needed 60 votes in order to waive the Budget Act.
Making Homeownership Easier for Some Public Employees
The House passed, 417-8, the American Homeownership and Economic Opportunity Act, bipartisan legislation that is designed to ease barriers to home ownership. The bill would allow cities to use federal grants from two separate programs, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME programs, to help teachers and uniformed municipal workers, including police, fire, sanitation and other maintenance workers, who make up to 115 percent of the area's median income. The bill would provide assistance with down payments, closing costs, counseling and subsidizing mortgages. The bill would authorize $1.6 billion in fiscal 2001 for HOME and $4.9 billion for the CDBG programs.
The bill (H.R. 1776) also contains another important provision, strongly supported by AFSCME, that would benefit corrections officers in purchasing homes. The "Law Enforcement Officer Homeownership Pilot Program" would instruct the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to establish a pilot program to assist law enforcement officers, including corrections officers, purchase a home in a locally-designated high-crime area. Specifically, the program would enable law enforcement officers to include the down payment, closing costs and origination fee in the loan amount.
They’ve Done It Again – On Education
As expected, members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee split along party lines over a bill (H.R. 4141) to authorize the last of the programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) not yet considered by the House.
The cornerstone of the Republican leadership proposal, introduced as a manager’s amendment by committee Chairman Bill Goodling (PA), would allow states and school districts to transfer federal funds from one formula program to another. Typically, formula grants must be used for the general purpose for which they are awarded. The Goodling amendment would cover programs such as the Safe and Drug-Free Schools, education technology, and Title I, among others.
Democrats objected to the bill, arguing that it would lead to a lack of accountability about specific programs. They offered a substitute amendment that incorporated their education priorities: $1.3 billion for emergency school renovation and construction; and separate funding streams for Safe and Drug-Free Schools and after-school programs. The amendment was rejected 21-27.
Bipartisan Support for Increased Funding for Employment Security
At the urging of AFSCME, five Democratic and Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee have written to the House Appropriations Committee urging increased appropriations for state unemployment insurance and employment service operations. This is the first time that Ways and Means Committee members have advocated publicly for increased funds and represents the beginning of a coordinated effort AFSCME is undertaking with state administrators this year to increase funding for these programs. Earlier in the year, a Ways and Means subcommittee heard testimony from organized labor, state administrators and employer representatives about the need for increased administrative funding.
China Vote Scheduled
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) announced that the U.S. House of Representatives will vote during the week of May 22-26 on legislation granting permanent trade benefits to China. The Clinton administration and its allies have been urging the Republican leadership for weeks to set a deadline for a vote on permanent normal trade relations (PNTR), arguing that it would put pressure on wavering lawmakers to support the free trade agreement. Proponents claim that they will need 70 to 80 Democrats to support PNTR to ensure passage if 150 Republicans back the initiative. Senate passage is virtually assured.
AFSCME and the entire labor movement are actively opposing PNTR. Next week, over 10,000 union members, including a large AFSCME contingent, will descend on the Congress for a rally and lobby day urging members to oppose PNTR.
Senate Committee Pushes Through Timber Revenue Bill -- Floor Fight Expected
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved by voice vote legislation (S. 1608) supported by AFSCME that would compensate forest communities that have lost public revenue because of a decline in the logging industry. The measure will provide a "safety net" for county school and road programs.
Although the measure passed without any debate or opposition, senators basically agreed to disagree on a provision in the bill that would set aside a small portion of the payments for special projects that are aimed at economic recovery for these communities. Counties would be allowed to "opt-out" of the special projects and use 100 percent of their money on schools and roads. Environmentalists are opposed to the special projects provision in the bill because they believe that these projects will be used to increase logging in forest communities. The debate on the "opt-out" provision will take place on the floor of the Senate.
AFSCME has been working with the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, comprised of over 850 educational, county, labor and industry groups, to help resolve the revenue problems in these timber communities.
New Jersey Seeks Funding From OSHA to Cover Public Employees
AFSCME successfully participated in an effort to get all the members of the New Jersey congressional delegation to sign a letter asking that the House Appropriations Committee consider funding New Jersey's state-run Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) program. Under current law, public employees only have workplace safety and health protection in those states that operate their own programs. Under such programs, the federal government will provide a significant portion of the cost to cover public employees. New Jersey has such a program, and for the first time, the state is seeking federal funding.
The measure will now be taken up as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations bill in the House and the Senate. President Clinton has also weighed in, asking that the New Jersey program receive federal funding.
New Law Eliminates Social Security Earnings Test
President Clinton today signed into law legislation which eliminates the earnings test for Social Security beneficiaries. The bill previously had been overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress.