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Senate Votes on Patients' Bill of Rights
On Thursday, the Senate voted 51 to 48 to defeat the Norwood-Dingell bill, the AFSCME-endorsed patients' rights legislation approved by the House of Representatives last October. Despite GOP leadership opposition, four Republican senators voted in support of the bill: Sens. Arlen Specter (PA), Peter Fitzgerald (IL), Lincoln Chafee (RI) and John McCain (AZ). Every Democrat voted in favor of the bill with the exception of Sen. Kent Conrad (ND) who was out of town.
Senate Democrats forced the vote in an effort to jumpstart the stalled negotiations in the patients' rights conference. Despite months of negotiations, little has been settled. The Norwood-Dingell bill was offered by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill. GOP leaders worked frantically to prevent the amendment from being approved. In fact, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), recovering from recent surgery, was brought in for the vote in order to ensure defeat.
While the amendment was defeated, Democrats succeeded in picking up support from two additional Republicans, Specter and McCain, compared with last year's vote on the Democratic version of the Patients' Bill of Rights.
Funding for Labor, Health and Education Programs Moves to House Floor
The House of Representatives took up the $350 billion Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education Appropriation amid intense partisan differences. Making a bad bill even worse, the House leadership moved to appease conservative Republicans by adding a provision that would cut child care funds if funding for all 13 appropriations bills exceed the limits approved earlier in the year. They also cut funding for higher education assistance and agreed to make an amendment in order that would cut $25 million from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The bill already underfunds OSHA, other Labor Department enforcement programs, dislocated worker programs, employment services, unemployment insurance operations, public hospitals, and other education programs.
Debate will continue on the bill next week. AFSCME has lobbied hard against the measure — in part because of cuts in labor, education and social programs which fund the jobs of many AFSCME members.
Experts Agree: Bush's Social Security Plan Would Result In Benefit Cuts
According to a report just issued by the Century Foundation, proposals to privatize Social Security, such as the one outlined by Governor George W. Bush, could lead to drastic cuts in guaranteed Social Security benefits and leave workers vulnerable to the ups and downs of the stock market. The report, entitled "Governor Bush's Individual Account Proposal: Implications for Retirement Benefits," was conducted by four leading Social Security experts who analyzed Bush's plan for partial privatization. It concluded that allowing workers to divert part of their Social Security payroll tax into individual accounts would change the long-term solvency problem of Social Security from one that is manageable with small changes to one that could only be "solved" through deep benefit cuts.
House Approves Inheritance Tax Repeal
The House of Representatives approved a bill to repeal the inheritance tax. The bill as written is designed to benefit the very wealthy. The estate tax now applies to fewer than two percent of all estates. Fewer than 58,000 estates pay the tax each year. Estates of $675,000 ($1.35 million for a married couple, rising to $2 million by 2006) are already exempt from paying any taxes. The cost of the legislation is estimated to be $105 billion over the first 10 years, but grows by $40 billion a year when it is fully phased in. A less costly alternative sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) was rejected.
Reauthorization of the Ryan White AIDS Law Passes the Senate
By voice vote and without debate, the Senate passed legislation that would reauthorize the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Act. The law, which authorizes grants to cities and states for the treatment and support of people with AIDS, was revised to steer more assistance to underserved urban and rural areas.
Hearing Scheduled on Needlestick Injuries
The Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will hold a hearing on June 22 on the problem of needlestick injuries to health care workers. The scheduling of this hearing is a major victory for unions with health care workers who have been lobbying for The Health Care Worker Needlestick Prevention Act (H.R. 1899/S. 1140), introduced by Reps. Pete Stark (D-CA) and Marge Roukema (R-NJ). The bill would require the use of safety-designed needles and sharps in health care workplaces in order to reduce injuries which cause 1,000 workers each year to become infected with serious diseases including HIV and Hepatitis C.
Money Matters: Housing Budget for Fiscal 2001 is Shortchanged
The full House Appropriations Committee approved, by voice vote, funding levels for fiscal year 2001 that are mostly below current levels for federal housing and community development programs. The Public Housing Operating Subsidies program was allocated $3.138 billion, the same
funding as it received for the current fiscal year. But, the Public Housing Modernization program was funded at $2.8 billion, a cut of $1 billion from the current level, with an additional $565 million for severely distressed public housing, off $10 million from last year's level. The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program was funded at $4.5 billion, $295 million below this year's level. Democratic members of the committee expressed anger and frustration with the GOP leadership for reserving the budget surplus for tax cuts instead of allocating higher levels of funding needed to alleviate the nation's pressing housing problems.
The Pressure is on the Senate to Vote on PNTR Soon
Confusion reigns over how and when the Senate will consider the House-passed bill (H.R. 4444) granting China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR). GOP Senators unhappy with changes that the House made to the original legislation want to have the ability to make their own changes. In addition, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) has announced that he plans to offer amendments on labor and human rights, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) is pressing to complete all the appropriations bills before the Senate considers PNTR. However, if any changes are made to the House-passed bill, it would have to be sent to a conference committee and then back to the House floor for what would be another highly contentious vote. Therefore, in order to press the Senate to take the House-passed bill as is, over 100 agriculture, business and technology lobbyists met in a closed-door meeting with top members of the Senate Finance Committee and urged them to move the bill to the floor in June without amendments. Ten Democratic senators who are members of the New Democrats group released a letter promising to work with Republicans to defeat all floor amendments.
Religious Liberty Legislation Poses Threat to Prison Employees
The U.S. Senate will soon consider legislation that would have the effect of undermining security in our nation's correctional facilities and subjecting corrections officers and administrators to frivolous lawsuits. The legislation, the "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000" (S. 2081), purports to encourage the exercise of religion in correctional facilities but would actually interfere with legitimate security measures by granting protections to all inmates who claim to practice a religion, including Satanic worship and animal sacrifices. Please call your senators and ask them to oppose the provision in S. 2081 that relates to the exercise of religion by prison inmates. Call the U.S. Capitol switchboard at 1-202-224-3121, or send an email to your senators. A link to a detailed legislative alert with a sample e-mail message is on the AFSCME Corrections United Home Page at http://www.afscme.org/acu/.