Congressional Update – 5/14/2012

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House Passes New Round of Budget Cuts

•    Last week House Republicans doubled down on their campaign to slash government programs that are helping families cope with the worst recession since the Great Depression by passing a spending cut bill (known as “reconciliation”) that implements parts of the Ryan budget blueprint.

•    The “Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act of 2012” cuts a total of $324 billion from programs targeted at helping low and moderate  income families, including food stamps, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and other social services for children, working mothers, and the elderly.

•    Rather than raise one penny in taxes on the rich or corporations, the Ryan plan also continues the assault on government workers, raising their cost of retirement by $79 billion; in effect cutting the pay of federal employees by an additional $10,000 over the next decade.

•    In addition to cutting future spending to conform to the Ryan budget, the bill also shields the Defense Department from the automatic cuts that were to occur on January 1, 2013 according to the agreement reached last July to raise the debt ceiling. (Under that agreement, Congress’s failure to come up with a plan to cut the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion over ten years was to result in automatic across the board cuts in both defense and non-defense spending.) The Ryan bill adopted this week repeals this fast track process, known as “sequestration,” and shifts all of the cuts that were to occur automatically under sequestration to programs that help poor and working class Americans. 

•    No Democrat voted for the bill, which passed 218-199.

•    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already announced that the Senate will not take up the Ryan bill, meaning that sequestration might still occur at the beginning of next year.  

House Passes Appropriation Bill with Controversial Riders

•    During debate on the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill for FY 2013, the House adopted several riders that would prohibit the Department of Justice from defending Obama Administration priorities in a number of areas, including labor law, immigration reform, and the Affordable Care Act.
•    An amendment offered by Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) would prohibit the NLRB from suing states that outlaw voluntary recognition, or card check, agreements.

•    In 2010, four states –Arizona, South Dakota, South Carolina and Utah—enacted constitutional amendments that would prohibit voluntary recognition agreements.  Because these state amendments interfere with the exercise of federally-protected rights, the National Labor Relations Board informed the states that they were preempted by federal law, and the Department of Justice is representing the NLRB in a lawsuit against the State of Arizona.

•    The Duncan Amendment passed 232-192, with 13 Republicans voting ‘no’ and 7 Democrats voting ‘yes.’

•    Similarly, Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) offered an amendment that would prohibit the Justice Department from challenging state anti-immigrant legislation, including laws recently passed by Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah. The vote was 278-173.

•    The House also adopted an amendment by Rep. Schweikert (R-AZ) that would prohibit Justice Department funding to bring legal action against any state law requiring voter identification. The amendment passed on a vote of 232-190

•    Finally, the House adopted an amendment by Rep. Blackburn (R-TN) that would prohibit funding for the Justice Department to defend against court challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The amendment was adopted on a vote of 229-194

Senate Fails to End Student Loan Filibuster

•    On Tuesday, the Senate failed to shut off a Republican filibuster against a bill that would prevent college loan interest rates from doubling. The Democratic plan offset the cost by closing a corporate tax break for so-called S Corporations.

•    The House had already voted to cap the loan rate, but offset the cost by slashing an important disease prevention program created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The AFL-CIO opposed this bill, calling it a “ploy to score political points by pitting one worthy legislative objective against another.” 

•    President Obama proposed extending the current 3.4% cap on need-based loans for another year, but strongly opposes using the ACA Prevention and Public Health Fund as the offset. 

Highway Bill 

•    The conference committee on the Surface Transportation bill held its first formal meeting on Tuesday, May 8.

•    The $109 billion Senate bill would fund nearly 2 million transportation construction jobs through September 2013. The stripped-down House version includes a 90 day extension of the current program along with a requirement that the Administration issue a permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days.   

•    House conferees will be pushing for consideration of provisions from the Republican-drafted bill (H.R.7) that never came up for a House vote, as well as the Keystone permit that was included in the 90-day extension. Senate conferees will be trying to keep as many of those issues out of the final bill, preferring instead the bi-partisan bill that passed the Senate in March.

•    The current highway program expires on June 30.