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Legislation Department
September 15, 2000

Congressional End-Of-Session Game Plan Still Elusive

White House and congressional negotiators still have not reached agreement on a strategy to pass the remaining annual government spending bills, which would clear the way for an early October adjournment. A major stumbling block so far has been the unwillingness of GOP leaders to give up their strategy to pass massive tax cuts for the wealthy. The newest plan to emerge for passing the remaining 11 fiscal 2001 spending bills is to link them to a measure combining a minimum wage increase and tax breaks for business. The House Ways and Means Committee, in a move which House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) called a "public relations strategy," approved a bill alleging to earmark a portion of the budget surplus for debt reduction. They hoped this would free up approximately $27 billion this year for yet another major tax cut bill. The new tax bill includes major, costly pension law expansions directed mainly to the wealthy as well as new breaks for businesses.

House Fails To Override Clinton's Veto Of Tax Cut Bill

The House, for the second time in as many weeks, failed to override President Clinton's veto of a major tax bill. Following on the heels of last week's failed effort to override the veto of the estate tax repeal, the House now has fallen short in the effort to override the veto of the $90 billion, five-year tax cut for some married couples. Forty-nine Democrats joined Republicans in voting to override the veto, but the 270-158 tally failed to reach the required two-thirds majority. Clinton called the bill "fiscally reckless" in his Aug. 5 veto message and complained that 60 percent of the tax cuts would go to those well-off families that are unaffected by the marriage penalty.

Major Business Group Opposes Unemployment Insurance Reform Package

The National Federation of Small Business (NFIB) sent a letter to the chair of a key House subcommittee criticizing the unemployment insurance reform package being pushed by AFSCME. The letter specifically criticized all of the improvements in the package for low wage, seasonal and part-time workers. In addition to these benefit improvements, the package also substantially boasts federal funding of state unemployment insurance and employment services operations and gives employers the repeal of the FUTA surtax they have sought for the last 18 months in Congress. The surtax repeal is in Speaker Hastert's minimum wage offer. We strongly oppose the FUTA surtax repeal without agreement to move the entire reform package together.

While NFIB's opposition creates apolitical obstacle for the proposal, we remain hopeful that the reform package may still see favorable action this year.

Minimum Wage and UI Reform

High level discussions between the House and Senate leaders and the Administration continued over a minimum wage package, but no breakthroughs were reported. AFSCME let congressional members know that it strongly opposes the provisions in House Speaker Hastert's proposal that would weaken existing overtime provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and repeal the FUTA surtax unless it is attached to a broader reform package of the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system.

Senate Passes Bill to Revitalize Timber Communities

On September 13, the Senate approved an AFSCME-supported bill that would bring badly needed economic relief to hundreds of timber communities across the country. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, S. 1608, seeks to solve the crisis in America's rural forest communities. The bill provides a 7-year safety net of guaranteed funding to rural forest counties while directing a portion of the payments to the development of local projects to address the community's needs. The House passed its version of the legislation several months ago. The two bills will now go to a Senate-House conference committee to iron out the differences.

President Urges the Senate to Pass Patients' Bill of Rights

On Thursday, President Clinton urged the Senate to approve the Norwood/Dingell Patients' Bill of Rights, which was passed by the House of Representatives last October. Currently, there are 50 votes in the Senate in support of the Norwood/Dingell bill. If a vote were held and a tie reached, Vice President Al Gore would be called in to cast the tie-breaking vote.

It appears increasingly unlikely that the Senate GOP leadership will hand the Vice President such a golden political opportunity. Consequently, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Representatives John Dingell (D-MI) and Rep. Charles Norwood (R-GA) are shopping a revised draft bill to Senate Republicans, hoping to pick up more support and eliminate the need for the Vice President to serve as the tie-breaker.

The draft legislation includes the same strong patient protections and whistleblower protections for health care professionals as contained in the original measure. In a departure from the Norwood/Dingell bill, the new draft would allow states to enforce their own reform laws if the Secretary of Health and Human Services were to determine that they are "substantially equivalent" to the federal safeguards. The draft also includes changes in the liability section covering private sector plans, providing that some cases be heard in federal, rather than state, court. However, the liability changes do not weaken the ability of patients to hold plans accountable for medical malpractice.

New Needlestick Bill Introduced

This week, Representatives Cass Ballenger (R-NC) and Major Owens (D-NY), Chair and Ranking Democrat of the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, introduced their own needlestick bill (HR 5178). The bill draws considerably from H.R. 1899, a bill introduced last year by Representatives Pete Stark (D-CA) and Marge Roukema (R-NJ).

The Ballenger-Owens bill would require the use of safety-designed needles in workplaces regulated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Chances are also very good that Sens. Jim Jeffords (R-VT), Michael Enzi (R-OH), Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Harry Reid (D-NV) will introduce a companion bill in the Senate. The main difference between the Ballenger-Owens bill and H.R. 1899 is the absence of a provision that would require public hospitals, which are not regulated by OSHA, to meet the needlestick requirement as a condition of participation in the Medicare program. Therefore, while AFSCME is supporting the Ballenger-Owens bill, we are also pursuing legislative protections for workers in public hospitals through a separate Medicare bill moving through the Congress. Our champion in the Senate is Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY). In the House, we have bipartisan support from Representatives Pete Stark, Phil English (R-PA) and Nancy Johnson (R-CT).

House and Senate Move Quickly on D.C. Spending Bill

After weeks of stalling, the House approved H.R.4942, the District of Columbia (D. C.) FY2001 spending bill on September 14. One day earlier the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the spending bill.

AFSCME strongly opposed the House bill because of the policy riders included in the bill on social policy issues that should be decided by the D. C. government, in particular language that could result in the downsizing and restructuring of D.C. General Hospital which employs many AFSCME members.

Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China

The Senate moved closer to approving Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China after defeating a series of amendments. Supporters of the trade bill had called on Senators to reject all amendments, saying that the bill could die if amended and sent back to the House which had previously approved it 237-197. An amendment offered by Senators Fred Thompson (R-TN) and Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) that would have required the president to impose sanctions on nations, including China, found to be selling illicit weapons of mass destruction had been considered the most serious threat to the no-amendment strategy. However, in the end, the Thompson-Torricelli amendment was defeated, 65-32. The Senate also rejected, 22-74, an amendment offered by Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) that would have delayed permanent normal trade relations until China has made progress in releasing prisoners incarcerated for organizing unions. The final vote on PNTR is expected early next week.

Action on Prescription Drugs in the Senate Proposed

Renewing an earlier pledge, Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and Graham (D-Fl) announced that they would offer their Medicare Prescription drug benefit proposal to every bill that the GOP leadership hopes to pass this year.

Senate Committee Approves Housing Budget

Senate appropriators shifted $3.9 billion from the fiscal 2001 Transportation spending bill to increase the funding for the departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other agencies. With the infusion of the additional funds, the Senate VA-HUD bill would provide about $3.6 billion more than the House version approved earlier, but $2 billion less than the Administration requested.

The Senate bill provided increases over the House bill for housing programs that most affect AFSCME workers. The Committee approved approximately $3 billion for the Public Housing Capital Fund (formally called the Modernization program). This represents a small increase over the House's $2.8 billion, but still over $800 million below this years' funding level. The Senate also gave a minor addition to the Public Housing Operating Fund. The Senate also gave the Drug Elimination Grants program for Low Income Housing a small funding increase. The Senate increased funding over the House level for HOPE VI to revitalize severely distressed public housing and bumped up funding for the Community Development Block Grant.