Author Archives: Matt Unrath

On the Hill: Heading Towards Recess

As the final work week for Congress before a month long summer recess, lawmakers in both the House and Senate scrambled to wrap up consideration of a few key legislative priorities before heading back to their districts. Pressing items included passing legislation to shore up the Highway Trust Fund, which provides funds for many of the nation’s major infrastructure projects, something lawmakers can tout to their constituents while at home. Also on Congress’s agenda was passing a supplemental spending bill that would include additional funds for a response to the growing influx of child migrants arriving at U.S. borders. On Thursday a $3.6 billion supplemental was blocked in the Senate, which would have funded border security, wildfire response and an Israeli missile defense system. The measure failed 50-44 on a budget point of order, which required 60 votes to waive, with senators objecting to the bill’s emergency funding not being offset. The move followed turmoil in the House, where Republican leaders had already scrapped a vote on their own slimmed-down supplemental after it lacked sufficient support for passage. House Democrats as well as the Obama administration had long criticized the House bill as an insufficient patch for a broken system, and for its “undercutting of due process for vulnerable migrant children which could result in their removal to life threatening situations in foreign countries.” After the votes were canceled, Republicans, who are suing President Barack Obama for an alleged overreach of executive power, called on the president to take steps to address the border crisis without congressional action. House leadership pledged to work through the night on Thursday on changes to make the bill palatable for more conservative factions of the House Republican caucus. With lawmakers eager for recess it remains to be seen whether they can craft a spending bill to garner sufficient Republican support to pass the House, though any such measure would certainly fail in the Senate and be rejected by President Obama.
With spending decisions on hold and other priorities such as raising the federal minimum wage or extending unemployment insurance benefits stalled until after recess at the earliest, the only major development of the week came not from Congress but from President Obama, who announced on Thursday a new executive order requiring federal contractors to give their workers more rights in labor disputes. By forcing companies to disclose recent labor law violations, the executives order puts pressure on the most egregious violators to improve or else lose out on lucrative federal contracts. The requirement that contractors divulge labor violations within the past three years applies to those bidding on contracts of more than $500,000. The order also requires that contractors give their workers information to determine whether their paychecks are accurate, and allow workers to have a judge, not an arbitrator, hear sexual assault and civil rights grievances. Another provision prohibits companies seeking contracts that exceed $1 million from requiring their workers to agree upfront to submit certain sexual assault, harassment and discrimination disputes to arbitration, rather than seeking redress through the courts. Multiple congressional studies show that the same U.S. companies with the highest fines for labor violations also continue to win billions of dollars in annual government contracts. Thursday’s executive coincides with others the President has signed this year, including those requiring federal contractors to pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour and barring contractors from discriminating against gay or transgender workers.
Notwithstanding additional action in the House on a spending supplemental bill through the weekend, both the House and the Senate will be in recess for the month of August, returning to session on Tuesday, September 9th.

On the Hill: CR, Minimum Wage, and Ryan’s Poverty Plan

In its second to the last week of session before adjourning for August recess, this week Congress focused on several last minute items including supplemental spending plans, proposals to improve outcomes for veteran’s health care through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and ways to address the growing crisis of undocumented migrant children arriving at the U.S. border. 
With House lawmakers far apart from their Senate counterparts on spending and work on individual spending bills at a standstill in the Senate, it appears certain that Congress will pass a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded beyond the end of the fiscal year on September 30. Appropriations staff members from both parties have long acknowledged quietly that a CR likely would be needed for the more contentious fiscal 2015 spending bills and that a wrap-up omnibus in the lame-duck session would likely be the best scenario during a fiercely partisan midterm election year. House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that the House will not deal with funding the government before the August recess, but that the House will pass a short term continuing resolution sometime in September. Lawmakers will return from their August recess on Sept. 8 and the House will have just 10 legislative days to pass the continuing resolution. In passing a short-term continuing resolution and putting off key spending issues until after the November elections, control over 2015 spending will fall to a lame-duck Congress. In the near term, the Senate Appropriations Committee released a draft fiscal 2014 supplemental spending bill to address pressing needs such as the child migrant influx and wildfire fighting.
In keeping with a series of pre-midterm election votes on issues, Senate Democrats made known plans this week to hold a vote on the long-stalled proposal to raise the federal minimum wage. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP)Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa said Democrats would rally around the proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, and that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) planned a cloture vote to proceed to the measure after the month-long summer break. Thursday of this week marked the anniversary of the last three-stepped increase in the minimum wage, enacted in May of 2007. The law required the last increase in the minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25, on July 24, 2009. The Senate fell short of invoking cloture by a party-line 54-42 vote on Harkin’s proposal on April 30. Opponents cited a February analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, which projected it could eliminate 500,000 jobs, while lifting 900,000 persons out of poverty. But supporters replied this week by pointing to a July 18 Labor Department report on employment at the state level that found nine of the 13 states that raised their state minimum wage last January were among the 30 states with significant over-the-year job gains in June. The nine states were Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Washington. 
Finally House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released an anti-poverty report this week entitled “Expanding Opportunity in America.” The plan, a sweeping consolidation of the nation’s anti-poverty programs, would combine the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as well as child-care and housing assistance into a single “Opportunity Grant” that a select handful of states could use for the pilot projects. The money would be funneled to competing local service providers – including nonprofits, for-profits, and state agencies – and all able-bodied beneficiaries would be required to work. Notably, the plan does not cut spending on the poor, but those opposed to Ryan’s plan, including the Center on Public and Policy Priorities argue it will likely increase poverty and shrink resources for poverty programs over time.
Both the House and the Senate will be in session starting on Monday of next week.

On the Hill: WIOA, Appropriations, and UI

Congress returned this week to Washington for its final work period before the August recess. While still deadlocked on resolving differences on major appropriations bills, Congress did act to actually reform and reauthorize the nation’s job training programs.

Following passage last month of the bipartisan Senate version of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, on Wednesday the House passed the compromise bill on a 416-6 vote. It will next head to President Obama, who has expressed his support and is expected to sign it into law. The compromise legislation, crafted by leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, repeals the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 and replaces it with new authority that maintains most of WIA’s original programs. The measure authorizes funding through fiscal year 2020 for workforce development systems at the state and local level, and also maintains and modifies Job Corps, national programs, and adult education and literacy initiatives. It repeals 15 separate programs and requires states to submit plans for workforce systems that address all of the core programs under the measure. The language also standardizes performance indicators for all programs, and requires states to develop comprehensive strategies to align workforce activities with labor market demands, business needs and economic development goals. The bill continues the basic structure of state workforce development systems, with state and local boards developing workforce development plans that govern education, job training and other programs through one-stop delivery systems. However, it modifies the roles of the boards and requires that the plans be more comprehensive and tailored to the region’s employment and workforce needs so that the programs can provide training, employment services, adult education and vocational rehabilitation through a coordinated, comprehensive system.

In spite of the its showing strong bipartisan, bicameral support for the job training measure, Congress remains starkly divided on the 12 major spending bills that must be passed to fund major federal programs for fiscal year 2015. While the House continues to pass various spending bills (although its Energy-Water bill drew a veto threat from the Obama administration this week), the appropriations process in the Senate is essentially at a standstill as a result of contentious policy riders being attached to various spending bills. Because of the increasingly slim odds of lawmakers managing to reconcile spending bills passed by each chamber, it appears Congress will need to pass an emergency spending package to cover immediate threats like wildfires and border security.

Given this reality, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) has urged that his proposal to extend unemployment insurance benefits be attached to such a measure. Unfortunately, Sen. Reed’s proposed mechanism to pay for the extension is now being considered as a way to ensure continued funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which covers many of the nation’s major infrastructure projects and is expected to run dry this summer. Reed’s proposal to extend jobless aid for five months would cost a little under $10 billion and would be fully offset — a key to Republican support — using a combination of revenue raisers that includes extending “pension smoothing” provisions and extending customs user fees through 2024. House leadership has expressed no appetite for taking up the jobless aid renewal without attaching major Republican priorities.  The odds of action on unemployment insurance seem even smaller now that House Ways & Means Chairman David Camp has announced plans to use pension smoothing, which temporarily reduces the amount that companies are required to pay into their pension funds, as a way to continue funding transportation projects for 10 months.

Beyond unemployment insurance benefits, other items on Senate Democrat’s “Fair Shot” economic agenda continue to flounder without bipartisan support in the chamber. Launched with fanfare as a coordinated plan to align senators behind party priorities aimed at addressing inequality in the economy, an agenda that included the minimum wage, pay equity and student loan refinancing has been stalled by shortfalls on votes and procedural impasses. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has little time before August recess to bring up any of these or additional priorities for what will likely be a doomed cloture vote on the Senate floor. Unless a clear path to bipartisan support can be forged—something that seems increasingly unlikely given the breakdown in the chambers’ appropriations process—many of these items appear to be on hold for the foreseeable future, or at least until after the August recess.

Both the House and the Senate will be in session next week.


On the Hill: WIOA and UI Extension

Both the House and Senate were in session this week for a final few days of work ahead of the Fourth of July recess.

The Senate voted for passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act on an overwhelmingly bipartisan 95-3 vote. The legislation, crafted by Senators Harkin (D-IA), Alexander (R-TN), Murray (D-WA), and Isakson (R-GA) and Representatives Kline (R-MN), Miller (D-CA), Foxx (R-VA), and Hinojosa (D-TX), will now move to the House. The bill represents a compromise between the SKILLS Act (H.R. 803), which passed the House of Representatives in March of 2013, and the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 (S. 1356), which passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee with a bipartisan vote of 18-3 in July, 2013. The House could consider the bill as early as when it returns from the Fourth of July recess. The National Coalition on Women, Jobs and Job Training (NCWJJT) offered this statement in response to WIOA’s introduction.

While the passage of the WIA reauthorization with clear bicameral, bipartisan support this week was an encouraging sign, the odds for a new measure to reinstate unemployment insurance for jobless Americans remain less sure. Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) continue to push for a bipartisan deal to extend the jobless aid, after their first attempt at a five month extension that passed the Senate in April languished in the Republican controlled House. The duo introduced their new proposal on Tuesday. It includes five months of extended benefits past 26 weeks, paid for by changes to pension laws and an extension of Customs fees through 2024.  A key difference with this most recent proposal is that the jobless benefits will not be retroactive for unemployed Americans who stopped receiving aid after the program expired last December. By avoiding retroactive benefits, the latest legislation may mute some of the critiques that the previous iteration was hard to implement. Its lack of a firm expiration date will also increase the bill’s shelf life if it takes a few months to pass. Timing could be tight with a busy workload of appropriations bills on the Senate’s schedule for July, perhaps the last full month of real legislating before the midterm election season goes into full swing. Even if the Senate does pass another unemployment insurance bill, the biggest challenge will be convincing the House to consider it, which it would certainly would not without including Republican-supported legislation like approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s medical device tax or other changes to the health care overhaul.

The White House, Department of Labor, and allies this week hosted the Summit for Working Families, with the goal of raising the national dialog on the importance of policies that best support working parents. The event featured speakers from the advocacy, business, and policy worlds, and included remarks from President and First Lady. While touting passage of the Affordable Care Act, as well as executive actions to raise the minimum wage for all federal contracted workers, President Obama called on Congress to implement policies for working parents including paid sick and family leave, affordable childcare, raising the federal minimum wage for all Americans, and strengthening pay equity protections for women. The US lags markedly behind many other developed nations in ensuring access to these basic needs. In conjunction with the event, President Obama also released a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to offer flexibility to workers, implementing a “right to request” provision which allows workers to ask for flexible working situations without fear of retaliation. Among the many other actions and commitments announced by the White House, WOW and its partner Jobs for the Future committed to expanded a curriculum designed to help job training programs, community colleges, unions, industry partners and others to improve women’s access to nontraditional, high-wage careers. Read more here.

Both the House and the Senate will be in recess next week for the July 4th Holiday. The Senate will return on Monday, July 7th and the House will return Tuesday, July 8th.


On the Hill: Appropriations Bills

With both the House and Senate in session this week, Congress continued its focus on various appropriations packages and other committee work. The Senate appropriations floor process became unworkable this week and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) effectively pulled a three-bill ‘minibus’ spending package Thursday after Republicans and Democrats were unable to reach a deal on amendments—some of which were aimed at the Obama administration’s regulations on carbon emissions from existing power plants as well as other politically sensitive issues. The developments were a blow to Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, (D-MD) who has aggressively pushed to pass and conference all 12 annual spending bills with the House before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Small Business Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced legislation (S. 2481) to encourage women’s business ownership and give women-owned small businesses (WOSBs) more opportunities to win federal contracts.  The “Women’s Small Business Procurement Parity Act” would provide tools available under other contracting programs to help federal agencies meet the goal of awarding 5 percent of all federal contracts to WOSBs. The WOSB procurement program was officially launched in 2011 but has been hampered by restrictions on the size and type of contracts awarded. The legislation would address inequities regarding sole-source authority for WOSBs (all other major small business contracting programs have sole-source authority, but the WOSB procurement program currently does not).  The bill would also expedite a disparity study by the Small Business Administration (SBA), which identifies under-represented industries for participation in the WOSB procurement program. The study was originally required by 2018—more than eleven years after the last study—but would be accelerated to 2015. The House has already passed a similar version of the bill as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a bill that would make more Americans eligible for overtime compensation by limiting exclusions that have helped carve a growing share of workers out of overtime protections. The legislation guarantees a minimum wage and overtime pay for private-sector workers by raising salary thresholds that classify certain managers and “professional” employees as exempt from overtime pay. It would also tighten the definitions of what can be considered a worker’s “primary” duty on the job.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week.


On the Hill: Student Debt and Agricultural Appropriations

Both the House and Senate were in session for the week, with legislative work temporarily overshadowed on Wednesday by the surprise defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in his primary election on Tuesday evening. Cantor’s loss has triggered a shakeup in House leadership, with current Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) seen as his likely successor. Cantor will step down as Majority Leader on July 1, 2014. Many observers see his departure from Congress as bearing not only political but also policy implications, particularly on the now increasingly distant prospects of passing comprehensive immigration reform.

Despite the buzz in Washington over Cantor’s unexpected primary loss, Congress continued its work this week on several appropriations bills and other legislative items. As was largely anticipated, a proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to allow student loan borrowers to refinance their loans at lower interest rates failed to clear a key procedural hurdle on the Senate floor Wednesday, falling short of the 60 vote threshold to proceed on a 56-38 largely party-line vote. Three Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Bob Corker of Tennessee voted in favor of the legislation, which would have allowed an estimated 25 million student loan borrowers with both federal and private undergraduate loans to refinance their debt at a 3.86 percent interest rate. Despite the bill’s failure, leaders in the Senate have pledged to address the nation’s $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, with the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act a primary venue for reforming the nation’s student loan system. Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) of the Senate Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions Committee has said he looks forward to working in a bipartisan manner on issues regarding college affordability and accountability, as well as lessening debt burdens and increasing repayment options for existing student loan borrowers in the legislation.

In other developments, the House of Representatives was expected to consider its fiscal 2015 Agriculture spending package on Thursday but ultimately delayed consideration of the bill until sometime next week. The measure prompted a rare White House veto threat, including a Statement of Administration Policy which said that the bill “injects political decision-making into science-based nutrition standards, and includes objectionable language riders.” The White House and House Democrats particularly objected to its language requiring waivers of new nutrition standards for some school districts. Under the standards schools are required to add more fruits and green vegetables to school meals while reducing the amount of salt and fat that students consume. The administration says the rules are vital to lowering childhood obesity levels. Generally, the House bill appropriates a total of $109.8 billion for domestic food programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), Child Nutrition programs, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. The total for those programs is $1.2 billion more than current funding levels, but $23.2 billion less than the administration’s request.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate will be in session next week.


On the Hill: Student Loans and Jobless Benefits

With the House in recess for the week, the main legislative activity took place in the Senate with continued work on nominations, appropriations bills, and a renewed focus on the issue of student loan debt.

Both the Senate Banking and Senate Budget committees held hearings on Wednesday on student loans, considering issues of borrower experiences with servicers and the impact on the broader economy of the nation’s $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.  The hearings came ahead of next week’s floor consideration of a bill sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that would let Americans with outstanding federal and private student loans refinance them at the same rates students receive when taking out new federal loans. Students taking out new Stafford student loans pay 3.86 percent on undergraduate and 5.41 percent on graduate loans. The Warren bill would let people with public and private loans refinance their interest rates at those levels. The refinancing bill would be paid for by increasing taxes on millionaires — the so-called Buffett Tax, a reference to investor Warren Buffett, who’s said he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. The tax is a non-starter for Republicans, none of whom have openly supported the refinancing measure. The Congressional Budget Office Wednesday afternoon estimated that about half of all outstanding federal loans, which amount to $460 billion, and private loans, at $60 billion, would be refinanced under the bill. The CBO found that federal spending on student loans would increase by $55.6 billion in fiscal 2015, and total deficits would rise for the first few years after enactment, when most students would apply for refinancing. But ultimately deficits would decline by $22 billion from fiscal years 2015 to 2024, CBO said. Ahead of consideration of the proposal, several female Democratic Senators also highlighted the particular importance of student loan debt for young women, who enroll in college at higher rates than men do, and as a consequence of the gender wage gap. The Senators argued young women are doubly hit by the impact of large student loans and lower wages than their male counterparts, pointing to research showing that college-educated women make 82 cents on the dollar as compared to college-educated male counterparts.

After the House failed to take up a Senate passed bill to extend unemployment insurance benefits through May and to provide retroactive checks to those who had stopped receiving payments since the program expired on Dec. 28, lawmakers eager to see the benefits extended are considering the best path forward for the extension. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada have resumed negotiations to create new legislation that would extend the benefits. But the senators face a number of constraints that are hampering their negotiations, including an acceptable mechanism to pay for the benefits and the ability to make them retroactively available for those whose benefits were cut off more than five months ago. The measure also faces continued opposition in the Republican controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner has said that the chamber will not take up the jobless aid extension unless it includes separate measures aimed at job creation, which would likely not pass in the Senate. Neither Reed nor Heller has offered any kind of time frame for when they might introduce a new Senate package.

Finally, on Thursday the Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the 22nd Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. On a bipartisan vote of 78 to 17, senators approved Burwell to lead the government’s largest domestic department, which includes the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Burwell is scheduled to be formally sworn in as Secretary on Monday.

Both the House and the Senate will be in session next week.


On the Hill: Back to the Drawing Board for UI Renewal

While the Senate was in recess this week, the House met in a short session to continue work on various appropriations bills. The fiscal 2015 spending bill for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Commodity Futures Trading Commission will soon head to the floor after clearing a 31-18 committee vote on Thursday. Democrats failed in a series of attempts to block changes in nutrition policy during committee consideration of the package; in addition to preserving a waiver for school districts from school meal standards, the House Appropriations Committee also spared a provision in the bill adding white potatoes to the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and adopted report language intended to soften calorie-labeling requirements on vending machines.

With the House apparently not taking up the Senate passed deal to extend unemployment insurance benefits through June 1, it will be back to the drawing board for leaders in Congress hoping to pass a bipartisan extension of the jobless aid. Leaders in the Senate continue to stick with their plan to keep the unemployment provision separate from a bipartisan reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, suggesting the importance of passage of that bill as well as a willingness to strike a separate deal on the unemployment insurance extension if possible. Some Senators have expressed hope that after the midterm election primary season winds down, there may be a second window of opportunity to make legislative progress.

The House will be in recess next week, while the Senate will return to Washington and will be in session.


On the Hill: WIA Reauthorization

After years of failed attempts, key lawmakers in the House and Senate announced this week a bipartisan deal to pass a reformed Workforce Investment Act (WIA) which governs more than $3 billion in federal job-training programs. Both the House and Senate are expected to consider the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act when they return from recess in June. The deal announced Wednesday reforms WIA’s nearly 50 programs overseen by nine federal agencies by eliminating 15 programs, increasing the ability of local boards to use on-the-job training, incumbent worker training, and customized training. While the deal’s language generally sticks to the intent of the original law passed in 1998, it does eliminate some regulations and makes it easier for students at community colleges to enter directly into training programs. The bipartisan proposal also directs the Department of Labor to study gender imbalances and pay inequity in more technical job fields, and improve data collection for standardized reporting on common employment metrics such as median earnings, credentials earned, measurable skill gains and employer engagement. Finally, the new legislation would set authorized funding levels for each of the next five years, a shift from how the current WIA law works. This change could help preserve funding for the job-training program in future budget battles.

Key Senate lawmakers continued efforts to forge a bipartisan agreement for Congress to extend unemployment insurance benefits which expired last December. Senate Democrats have been exploring the possibility of whether a full-year extension of the benefits, in combination with a number of measures aimed at spurring economic growth, could secure passage in Congress. Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray of Washington said she and other party leaders would continue to press for action on a long-term extension of jobless aid but that they had decided not to attach the five-month extension to the just announced bipartisan workforce investment law. Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said he believed job training legislation could help build momentum for expanded jobless aid by making clear that unemployed workers will receive better training in the future.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved on a 16-14 party line vote, the top-line spending levels presented by Chair Mikulski (D-MD), known as 302(b) allocations, for the 12 annual appropriations bills.  The 302(b) allocations adhere to the overall $1.014 trillion discretionary top line codified as part of the December budget deal, as well as separate defense and nondefense spending caps of $521.3 billion and $492.4 billion.  The Senate allocations differ most sharply from the figures House appropriators approved earlier this month for the Defense and Transportation-HUD spending titles, with the Senate panel setting aside $1.4 billion less and $2.4 billion more for the respective measures.  Senate appropriators also set aside $1.1 billion more for the Labor-HHS-Education account than their House counterparts, matching the currently enacted spending levels at $156.8 billion.

Finally, appropriators in both the House and Senate also took up Agriculture spending this week, with nutrition policy at the fore of the debate. On Tuesday the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee passed its agriculture spending bill, totaling $20.58 billion in discretionary funding. The bill provides $6.623 billion for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, a level consistent with full anticipated program participation.

The House will be in session starting Wednesday of next week following the Memorial Day holiday. The Senate will be in recess all of next week, returning Monday, June 2nd.


On the Hill: UI Extension and HELP Hearings

With the House in recess this week, the Senate was the main arena for legislative action. The House’s absence prevented any progress from being made on efforts to forge a bipartisan deal on extending unemployment insurance benefits.  Indeed, the unemployment extension may be headed “back to the drawing board,” since the possible Senate vehicle – the tax extender package dead for now – and there is no sign of movement in the House. This week the measure’s lead Democratic cosponsor, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), said he and his Republican counterpart Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) will continue their efforts if the House doesn’t act before the end of the month, which would be the deadline for passing their retroactive, five-month extension. Labor Secretary Tom Perez has also joined the call to extend the jobless aid, sending a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) highlighting the fact that not extending the benefits has cost 80,000 jobs so far and will cost an estimated 240,000 jobs by the end of the year. In the letter, Secretary Perez offered to negotiate additional job creation measures with the Speaker, though that outreach is likely to go unanswered.

On Wednesday, the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions considered a draft bill, The Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which would create two new federal support mechanisms for early education. The bill’s two mechanisms are a formula grant program to help states expand existing full-day, high-quality preschool programs for children from low-income families, and a competitive grant program to help states that don’t have those programs to launch them. It would also set standards for teacher training and pay, class size and the availability of health care and child care services. Under the measure, states would have to contribute an increasing amount of matching funds every year. In contrast to this proposal, HELP Committee’s Ranking member, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), offered as a substitute amendment his plan to take all existing federal spending on early learning and child care programs and give it to states in block grants to spend as they wish. The federal government spends about $8 billion annually on Head Start and $5 billion on grants to help low-income families with day care costs, plus smaller amounts for other programs. Republicans, who cite a 2012 Government Accountability Office report that found 45 programs in some way support those efforts, say states are in the best position to decide how to use that money to care for and educate young children. For their part, Democrats note that the GAO report included programs that should not be counted in a broad measure of federal spending on preschool, including early learning programs that target specific populations, such as children with disabilities or Native American children, and non-education programs, such as school lunches and snacks. Alexander’s proposal failed on a party line vote. Ultimately, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act passed out of committee along a 12-10 party line vote and will next head for consideration on the Senate floor.

The Senate HELP committee will hold a hearing next Tuesday, May 20 entitled “Economic Security for Working Women.” Both the House and Senate will be in session next week, before adjourning the following week for Memorial Day recess.