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Work on Spending Bills is "Slow Going"
The process of finishing work on the annual spending bills that fund government programs are moving forward at a snail's pace. Even though the new fiscal year already started on October 1, Congress still has acted upon only two of the regular 13 FY 2001 spending bills. Consequently, Congress has been forced to pass a second stop-gap, emergency-spending bill. The first stop-gap bill expired on October 6, so Congress has passed another that keeps the government running until October 14. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) still says he is hopeful Congress will finish its work by the 14 so they can adjourn for the year and return home to concentrate on elections. However, other congressional leaders believe it may take longer.
Norwood-Dingell Patients Bill of Rights Takes Step Forward
Locked in a close reelection race, Sen. John Ashcroft (R-MO) switched positions and announced that he now supports the revised Patients' Bill of Rights measure sponsored by Representative Charlie Norwood (R-GA) and John Dingell (D-MI). By adding Ashcroft to their list of supporters, the Norwood-Dingell bill now has majority support in the Senates, barring any last minute defections by other GOP supporters. Key sponsors plan to pressure Senate GOP leaders to allow a vote on the measure before the end of the current congressional session.
Needlestick Bill is Passed by House
Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved, by voice vote, the Ballenger/Owens needlestick bill (H.R. 5178). The bill, a key AFSCME legislative priority, requires employers under the jurisdiction of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement the use of safety-designed needles and sharps to reduce needlestick injuries to workers. This issue is now in the Senate for consideration where a companion bill has been introduced by Sens. Michael Enzi, (R-WY), James Jeffords (R-VT), Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Harry Reid (D-NV).
However, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) is currently blocking the bill, preventing the Senate from voting on it. He is acting on behalf of a company which makes a disposal device and which has lobbied to have special language added to the bill that would specify disposal devices as safe needles. The language would undermine the intent of the bill to require the use of safety needles. Sponsors of the Senate bill are working to convince Sen. Bunning to lift his hold on the bill. AFSCME and other supporters of the bill are generating grassroots pressure on Bunning as well.
Provision Protecting Public Hospital Workers is Approved in Subcommittee
Because H.R. 5178 amends OSHA, it would not apply to public workplaces in 27 states and the District of Columbia, where public employees are not covered by OSHA regulations. Therefore, AFSCME has worked on a separate track to establish a needlestick requirement for public hospitals by adding a provision to a Medicare bill moving through the Congress.
On October 3, the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee marked-up the Medicare legislation and added the needlestick provision to it. Advocates for this provision on the Subcommittee were Reps. Pete Stark (D-CA), Phil English (R-PA) and Nancy Johnson (R-CT). Negotiations are now under way among Republicans in the House and Senate to create a compromise package. Republican leaders will then commence negotiations with the White House. While the White House has committed to helping protect the needlestick provision in the Medicare bill, there is opposition to it from some Republican leaders.
Health Care Providers Gain Ground in Ways and Means Subcommittee Bill
The Ways and Means Health Subcommittee approved $30 billion in Medicare payments to health care providers, including hospitals, home health agencies, skilled nursing facilities and therapy providers. The payments would be given over five years. The bill includes increased payments to teaching and public hospitals, an AFSCME legislative priority.
Medicaid Intergovernmental Transfer Rule Finally Issued
On October 5, the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) issued their proposed rule limiting states' use of intergovernmental transfers to claim Medicaid matching funds. According to HCFA, because of the "upper payment limit loophole," Medicaid costs have increased by $2 billion in FY 2000 alone. AFSCME has had several meetings with the Administration and congressional health leaders in an effort to minimize the impact on public hospitals and other safety net providers.
Under the proposed rule, special payment limits are included for public hospitals, and the Administration is advocating an increase in Medicaid disproportionate share payments by $10 billion over 10 years, including an increase in hospital reimbursement rates beginning in the year 2002. We are working to ensure that these revisions are included in the Medicaid "give back" bills moving through Congress.
AFSCME Urges President to End Moratorium on Internet Taxes
President McEntee joined with National Education Association President Bob Chase and American Federation of Teachers President Sandy Feldman in urging President Clinton to let the moratorium on new internet taxes expire until progress is made toward the collection of existing sales taxes already due on Internet purchases. According to studies, if sales taxes continue to go uncollected on the growing volume of Internet purchases, state and local governments would lose more than $20 billion per year by 2003. The House passed an extension of the existing tax moratorium continuing non-collection, but the legislation has yet to come up in the Senate.
Congress Approves High-Tech Visa Bill
Both the House and Senate approved legislation that raised the number of H-1B visas available over the next three years for highly skilled foreign workers. The House voted its approval by voice vote after the Senate has passed the bill (S. 2045) earlier the same day by a vote of 96-1, with only Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC) voting no. It would increase the cap on the number of three-year H-1B visas, which can be renewed once, from 115,000 this year to 195,000 each year for the next three years. AFSCME and the rest of organized labor opposed the increase, citing the lack of data to support the high-tech industry's claim that there is a shortage of American workers with the requisite skills. Data that does exist demonstrates that foreign workers with H-1B visas are paid significantly less than American workers with comparable skills.
The final bill included several provisions intended to meet some of our objections. For example, the bill requires an employer that sponsors a foreigner who obtains such a visa must pay that worker the job's prevailing wage. The measure also contains a program to train American workers for high-tech jobs and teach children information technology skills, financed by a $500 fee paid by the sponsoring employer for each visa application. We pushed for the fee to be raised significantly. There remains the possibility that the fee might be increased to $1,000 in separate legislation still before the Congress. President Clinton has said that he will sign the bill.
Gephardt Announces Education Plan
House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (MO) unveiled an education agenda that would be a priority of the Democratic caucus if it regains majority status in the next Congress. The five new proposals are:
Congressional Concern About Welfare Contracting Grows
Concerned by recent reports of improper practices by welfare contractors in their states, Reps. Tom Barrett (D-WI), Jerry Kleczka (D-WI) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) have asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to look into the activities of private companies hired to administer welfare services. The representatives have asked the GAO to determine the extent of improper activities and to make recommendations to improve the current law. In Wisconsin, an independent audit concluded Maximus Inc. had billed the state for $466,000 in improper or questionable expenses, including money spent seeking contracts in other states, and throwing holiday parties. Investigators also are looking into whether Maximus officials improperly interfered with the contracting process in New York City.
Republicans Drop Hate Crimes Legislation
On October 5, the Republican leadership stripped hate crimes legislation from the Department of Defense (DOD) authorization bill, despite the fact that this legislation won the support of a broad, bipartisan majority in both chambers of Congress, the President, and 175 law enforcement, religious, civil, and civil rights groups. The action by the Republican leadership leaves slim hope that hate crimes legislation will pass this year.
The hate crimes measure, a top legislative priority for President Clinton, would expand federal hate crime protections, which now cover race, religion and national origin, to crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender or disability.