Senate Votes to Begin Floor Debate on Immigration Bill

The U.S. Senate today voted 82-15 to begin debate on the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, after Republicans failed to muster a filibuster. The legislation provides a road map to citizenship for aspiring Americans.

Earlier in the day, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joined President Obama at a press conference to rally support for the bill. Obama explained the importance of the legislation:

Throughout our history, the promise we found in those who come from every corner of the globe has always been one of our greatest strengths. It’s kept our workforce vibrant and dynamic. It’s kept our businesses on the cutting edge. It’s helped build the greatest economic engine that the world has ever known.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

Photo by alcebal2002 on Flickr

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Who Doesn’t Want to ‘Fix the Senate’? Lobbyists

Reposted from the AFL-CIO NOW Blog

Some of the most vocal opponents of the move to change U.S. Senate rules, including a proposal to help unblock Senate gridlock by ending the “silent filibuster” and actually forcing filibustering senators to take to the floor and talk if they want to block legislation, are lobbyists who profit from Senate dysfunction.

The Nation’s Lee Fang outlines how Republican-led filibusters and “silent holds” on nominations have resulted in some Big Business windfalls for corporations that just happened to be large contributors to the senators’ campaigns. Sort of an everybody wins situation for lobbyists, lawmakers and corporations, but pretty much a losing proposition for the rest of us.

Fang points to Steven Duffield, the vice president for policy for Karl Rove’s “dark money” group Crossroads GPS, as one of the most vigorous rules reform opponents who has touted his ability to get Republican lawmakers to unleash filibusters and holds and who, writes Fang, “literally sold filibusters, anonymous holds and the other forms of obstruction” during his 2011 lobbying work. Read Fang’s full story.

Don’t forget most of these same lawmakers, corporations and right-wing groups have used filibusters and holds to block bills, such as the DREAM Act and the American Jobs Act, and nominees, such as Elizabeth Warren to head up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.

You can learn more by visiting “Fix the Senate Now,” part of the campaign led by the Communications Workers of America and other groups to reform Senate rules, and check out this video, The Shocking Truth About the U.S. Senate.

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Two Years After Passage, Affordable Care Act Having a Positive Impact

It was two years ago today that President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law, after months of heated political conflict and decades of attempts to build a health care system that ensured everyone had access to care.

While much of the bill has yet to be implemented, the numbers are already impressive: 5.1 million seniors paying less for prescription drugs, 2.5 million more young people able to stay on their parents’ plan if they don’t have coverage of their own, broader access to preventative care and the end of discrimination against women in insurance pricing.

These aren’t just points on a graph—they’re real people, people like the Josephson family of Jacksonville, Florida, who were surprised they were able to get coverage for their two-year-old son’s eye condition. As the Huffington Post’s Jeffrey Young reports:

Two years later, health care reform has had real and profound effects on some Americans. Insurance companies can’t deny coverage to sick children, young adults can stay on parents’ workplace plans until they turn 26, people with pre-existing medical conditions now have a fallback plan when they can’t find insurance anywhere else, and senior citizens are paying less for prescription drugs.

In a long, comprehensive piece, Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff points out that there’s another aspect to the Affordable Care Act that’s already underway: a major reform in how health care gets delivered so that costs are lower and quality is higher.

It includes 45 changes to how doctors deliver health care — and how patients pay for it. These reforms, if successful, will move the country’s health system away from one that pays for volume and toward one that pays for value. The White House wants to see providers behave more like Baptist Health Systems, rewarding health care that is both less costly and more effective.

Over the next two years, we’ll see even more benefits of the Affordable Care Act kick in.

Working America members have long pointed to access to health care as one of their top priorities, and they worked hard across the country to get the Affordable Care Act passed. Through phone calls, rallies, letters, and Congressional visits, we managed to overcome the multi-million dollar lobbying campaigns and get the Affordable Care Act passed. It’s important to keep up the effort to make sure politicians don’t neglect or undermine our health care.

Next week, the Supreme Court will consider challenges to the law. For millions of uninsured people, this will be a decision of historic importance. We’ll be watching closely, too see if the major progress we’ve made in the past two years gets reversed—or whether we can move forward with the promise of making affordable, quality health care available to everyone.

Photo from Creative Commons, via Talk Radio News Service on Flickr.

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A Minority of Senators Block Economic Relief Bill—What Else Is New?

Last night the Senate held several votes, including a vote on a payroll tax holiday that would provide some much-needed relief to working families and small businesses. The bill would have extended and expanded the payroll tax holiday from this year, resulting in an average of about $1,500 of savings to nearly every household.

You don’t really need us to explain what happened—you can probably guess.

Democrats sought to extend and expand the break, while paying for it with a 3.25 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million. Just one Senate Republican, Maine’s Susan Collins, voted for the middle class break, which died 51 to 49 in an unsuccessful effort to end a Republican filibuster.

Continuing an ongoing trend, a mostly-Republican minority has once again blocked a portion of President Obama’s American Jobs Act. Showing their priorities, they chose to let over 100 million working families’ taxes go up rather than pass a small tax increase on just over 300,000 millionaires.

(Grover Norquist, the right-wing Washington D.C. power broker who invented the “no tax hikes” pledge, has officially told Republican Senators that allowing the holiday to lapse, increasing in taxes on millions of middle-class working people, doesn’t count as raising taxes. Wonder if he would hold the set-to-expire Bush-era income tax rates to the same standard?)

The Republicans offered a substitute version of the bill—a smaller tax cut, paid for not by asking the rich to contribute a little bit more but by cuts in federal programs, including the elimination of 200,000 federal jobs. Note the logic here: to pay for a temporary tax holiday aimed at shoring up an economy struggling with low demand, Mitch McConnell thought that the right thing to do was permanently taking away paychecks from 200,000 people and putting them back into the sputtering job market.

That version of the bill went down by a 78-20 margin, not even getting a majority of Republican votes.

So where do we go from here? It’s clear that the economy is still in need of assistance, and the key to that is making sure working families have a little more in their pockets to spend. We need to continue the payroll tax holiday and, in particular, we need to extend unemployment insurance for the millions still jobless.

And yes, Senate Dems promise there’ll be another vote on the payroll tax cut. It’s another opportunity to figure out where our elected leaders’ priorities lie—and the sponsors should hold firm on their popular, common-sense funding proposal.

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Priorities: Will Senate Republicans Kill Another Lifeline for the Economy?

This week, yet another portion of President Obama’s American Jobs Act is coming up for a vote in the U.S. Senate. This provision would extend a payroll tax holiday that saves working people about 2% of their income.

Instituted in late 2010, the payroll tax holiday has helped keep consumer spending afloat during a sputtering economy.

The extension of the payroll tax holiday would affect nearly everyone who gets a paycheck, and it would be worth around $1,000 a year to the median household. That’s real money, and if it lapses at the end of the year as it’s set to, tens of millions of households would see a hit to their after-tax incomes.

Naturally, the Senate Republicans who have killed multiple provisions of the jobs bill are preparing to do this one in, too. At the head of the line to oppose the payroll tax holiday is Arizona’s Sen. Jon Kyl, a member of the Senate Republican leadership and a partisan operator even by Washington D.C. standards.

As Steve Benen notes, Kyl has been loud and angry in his claims to oppose tax increases of any kind—but he’s also declared his disinterest in extending the payroll tax holiday, which would amount to a tax hike for the majority of households. See, the extension of the payroll tax holiday would be paid for, in the current bill, by a small surcharge on income over $1 million. Kyl says this is unacceptable.

Unsurprisingly, Kyl has it backwards. In a report on President Obama’s original jobs bill, the think tank Demos noted that “a payroll tax cut is highly effective at stimulating growth because it increases the size of ordinary people’s paychecks and most of this money gets immediately spent.”

Kyl is retiring at the end of his term next year, so he doesn’t have to face voters again. He can afford to take this economically illiterate and unpopular stance. Maybe it’s “not intended to be a factual statement,” which would be par for the course for Kyl.

We can debate whether Kyl’s stance here is more about ideology, rewarding campaign contributors or gaining political advantage by denying President Obama an economy-boosting policy win. (Given Kyl’s record, all three probably come into play.) In the end, though, it doesn’t matter what his motivation is, since the net effect is the same. If he gets his way, working families will have less money in their pockets next year.

As I’m always fond of saying, politics is about priorities. Here’s a clear-cut choice: ask for a short-term sacrifice from millionaires, and give some relief to tens of millions of working families, or keep taxes on the wealthiest at their historic lows and watch as taxes go up on nearly every working family. Kyl has made his choice.

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The Next Fight: Extending Unemployment Insurance

Now that the much-ado-about-nothing Super Committee is behind us, it’s time to get serious. The real crisis in this country is jobs. It’s unacceptable that Washington isn’t focusing all of its time and energy on tackling it. It’s unacceptable that 9% of people are unemployed, that millions more are under-employed or discouraged from the work force, that there are more than 4 job seekers for every opening, and 42% of the unemployed have been out of work 6 months or more.

And what’s really galling is that extended unemployment insurance benefits are set to expire at the year. That means a sizable drop in consumer spending—in practical terms, less money in the pockets of millions of people, hurting their ability to stay in their homes, support businesses and feed their families. Millions are living without real economic security, and in many cases unemployment insurance in the only thing keeping them afloat.

As the New York TimesBinyamin Appelbaum notes on Twitter, GDP growth has stayed stubbornly low this year, such that it’s not much bigger than the economic impact of the payroll tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits. Put more simply: these soon-to-expire policies are just about the only thing standing between our economy and utter stagnation or recession.

One study, by the Economic Policy Institute, estimates that the hit to the economy from failure to extend unemployment insurance would cost us half a million jobs. (They also have more detailed numbers on the job loss it would cause state-by-state.) That’s definitely not what we need right now.

The extension of unemployment insurance is one of the 9 Demands of the 99 Percent, and it’s an urgent one. We’ll be fighting in the coming weeks to make sure we can get an extension passed.

So far this fall, Republicans in the Senate, operating from the minority, have blocked bills on multiple occasions that would put hundreds of thousands of people back to work—while the House hasn’t taken up these jobs bills at all. (Instead of actual jobs proposals, the House leadership is trying to sell meaningless resolutions, favors to big banks and special assistance to companies that outsource jobs as “jobs bills.”) And in state capitals, new governors are kicking people out of vital jobs in education and public safety, another drag on the job market.

So as the unemployment insurance extension nears its expiration, will they kill another half a million jobs by blocking its renewal?

Photo by @jbtaylor on Flickr, via Creative Commons

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Superuncommitted: The Super Committee Folds—Time to Get Back to Jobs

There you have it, everyone: the so-called “Super Committee” has officially failed to come to an agreement.

Formed as the result of the utterly insane standoff over the debt ceiling this summer, the Super Committee was a bipartisan group of senators and representatives tasked with making major cuts to budget deficits. If they had come to a consensus, the Super Committee could have pushed their proposal through Congress without the usual procedural hurdles. Each new proposal floated by the committee members seemed to shift more and more in the direction of cuts to vital programs like Medicare and Social Security. In the end, the committee’s six Republicans wouldn’t take even these cuts: they wanted not only the demolition of the safety net, but a guarantee that those cuts wouldn’t be balanced out by net new tax revenue on wealthier Americans. (Although Super Committee Republican Pat Toomey, a new senator from Pennsylvania, was happy to propose a plan that would raise taxes on the middle class.)

In a new CNN poll today, 67% say higher revenues from wealthier Americans need to be part of deficit reduction, while 57% say that major cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits shouldn’t. The Beltway consensus position is exactly the opposite. Politicians like Toomey are expressing a fringe position—they’re wildly out of touch with the mainstream. A Super Committee-imposed deal that would cut Medicare and Social Security while leaving the tax burden of the rich untouched would fly in the face of public opinion.

But the really egregious thing is the time and energy wasted on the Super Committee fight while an actual, right-here, affects-real-people economic crisis is still underway. Joblessness is still stubbornly high, state budget austerity is cutting away real jobs and real public services people depend on, and unemployment benefits are set to expire at the end of the year. It’s completely embarrassing that Congress, thanks in part to the callous obstruction of Senate Republicans, is completely unable to get serious about putting people back to work.

Derek Thompson, writing at the Atlantic, says “we’ve missed an opportunity to expand and extend stimulus measures like the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits…the failure you should care about the most is the failure that we’ll feel first. And that’s the failure to address the growth crisis.”

As Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (a Working America member!) notes, we need broad economic growth first and foremost: “Every proposal for reducing the deficit should be put to the test of whether it creates or destroys jobs.”

So now that we’ve all woken up from the Super Committee dream, how about some attention to the economic issues people actually care about?

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore on Flickr, via Creative Commons

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Veterans’ Jobs Bill Passes – More Jobs Focus Needed

Mark it down: something good actually happened in Congress today, as the U.S. Senate passed a bill to help the job prospects of veterans. The bill would give tax credits to businesses that hire veterans and also help those who served in uniform get job training.

Many of Working America’s 3 million members are veterans, and this bill will help them get back into the workforce. The unemployment rate for veterans who served in wars is more than 11.5 percent.

It’s the only portion of the American Jobs Act that has passed so far. And while it’s definitely a step in the right direction, it’s only a start to the kind of investment we need to put more people back to work.

For instance: once again, the extension of unemployment benefits is set to expire. A new study shows that failing to extend unemployment benefits could cost the economy an additional half-million jobs. At a time when there are four job seekers for every open position and 42% of the unemployed have been out of work for 6 months or more, extending unemployment benefits is a must to keep money in people’s pockets. So when will that happen?

Let’s also consider the payroll tax holiday, which impacts millions of working families. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, has pledged to block the extension of this tax break, worth about $1,500 a year to the average household. That would amount to a tax hike for working people from a Senate Republican caucus who pretend to be concerned about preventing tax hikes on anyone.

The Senate tried—and failed, in the face of mostly Republican obstruction—to pass two popular jobs proposals that would have put hundreds of thousands of people back to work. That includes a bill to help states hire teachers, firefighters and police officers and another bill that would fund infrastructure projects to put construction workers back on the job. Each of these bills was fully paid for with a small surcharge—less than a penny apiece on the dollar—on the taxable income of the wealthy over $1 million a year. But the same people who are talking about ending the payroll tax holiday on working families found a tiny tax increase on millionaires radical and unacceptable.

Tax credits for employers to hire veterans absolutely have value, but the men and women who served our country would also benefit from other portions of the American Jobs Act, including having more jobs available as first responders or on infrastructure projects.

And, of course, we’re anxiously watching to see what comes out of the so-called “Super Committee,” the special Congressional body tasked with releasing deficit-cutting proposals. Both parties have released proposals that would put the burden of deficit reduction overwhelmingly on middle- and working-class families. Note that the kind of programs targeted by Super Committee proposals are mostly of the kind that kept millions of people out of poverty during this difficult economic climate. What the Super Committee should be focusing on is ways to kick-start the economy by putting people back to work.

Among the most breathtakingly cynical proposals to come out of the Super Committee has come from Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a Wall Street favorite who won narrowly in 2010. His record includes such lowlights as pioneering the kind of bank deregulation that helped cause the financial crisis and running the corporate-funded hard-right group Club for Growth. Toomey’s Super Committee proposal revolves around shifting the tax burden even further away from the wealthy and towards the middle class – amounting to tax hikes for almost everyone making under $200,000 a year and tax cuts in the tens of thousands of dollars every year for millionaires. When a politician like Toomey says he wants to lower “your” taxes, either he thinks you make a million dollars a year, or he has complete contempt for your intelligence.


(Incidentally, Pennsylvania’s veterans certainly seem to understand that Toomey isn’t looking out for them.)

So, by all means, we should thank the Senate for passing a common-sense bill to help our veterans and put them back to work. But job creation needs to be the first priority in everything Congress does.



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Time to Put Our Veterans Back to Work

This week, the Senate will consider yet another portion of President Obama’s American Jobs Act. This time, it’s a bill that would help the job prospects of returning veterans.

Many of the families that we talk to every day across the country have a former member of the armed forces among them, and for these veterans, getting back into the workforce can be a challenge. The unemployment rate among veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan is estimated to be more than 15 percent. With Veterans’ Day coming up this Friday, it’s a good time to think about what to do to help.

The bill being offered in the Senate would give tax credits to businesses that hire veterans, with additional credits for hiring veterans who were wounded or disabled in service, or for hiring those who have been out of work for six months or more. In addition, it would connect veterans of all ages with job training programs.

It’s a small but important step towards putting people back to work, and one that can make a big difference in the lives of veterans, their families and their communities. Congress needs to get to work putting paychecks back in people’s pockets, and those who served in uniform and came back to this rocky economy certainly deserve it.

It’s a common-sense bill that is fully paid for, and it’s based on a principle that has earned bipartisan support. Of course, that has been true of an infrastructure jobs bill that a minority of Senators blocked last week and a bill to put teachers and first responders back to work that a minority of the Senate blocked last month. The story is getting old, and independents and moderates are starting to agree that congressional Republicans are blocking jobs proposals like these primarily to hurt President Obama politically.

So will the obvious merits of this jobs proposal, aimed at those who served in uniform, finally be enough to get Senate Republicans to stop their habit of preventing a vote on bills that would actually boost the economy?

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Will the Senate Republicans Kill Another Jobs Bill Today? [UPDATE: Yes.]

[Update: And it's official: This afternoon, a minority of Senators once again blocked a jobs bill from getting a vote.]

You’ve heard the story a couple of times already, but here it is again: there’s a common-sense, fully-paid-for jobs bill up for consideration by the U.S. Senate today, but a minority of the Senate, including every Senate Republican, look poised to prevent it from even getting a vote. This time, it’s a bill that would fund hundreds of thousands of jobs on infrastructure projects.

In politics, everything is a question of priorities. On the one hand, unemployment in the construction sector is 13 percent, and these unemployed workers are struggling to support themselves and their local businesses while projects sorely needed by communities go undone. On the other hand, the bill is paid for by a small tax increase on income over $1 million. So there’s a choice to be made. Is what’s most important to the economy putting paychecks back in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of people? Or is it more important to keep taxes on millionaires at historic lows?

(And yes, it’s fair to use the word “obstruction” in this case. Senate Republicans have made unprecedented use of the filibuster, especially since Obama was elected, as a way to chew up time and prevent legislation from passing. Forcing a 60-vote threshold for bills used to be an extraordinary event—now it’s taken for granted as completely routine.)

The group of Senators poised to block this bill have made their choice. To them, asking people who make over $1 million *a year* to pay less than 1 percent more in taxes on only the income over $1 million is such a radical, unacceptable step that it’s worth keeping people out of work to prevent it.

It’s worth noting that asking these high earners to pay a little more in taxes is overwhelmingly popular, with wide support across the political spectrum. Blocking proposals like this is by any stretch of the imagination a minority, even fringe, position. Time and time again, when asked to choose between “employing people but also making a tiny change to marginal taxes on a little bit of the income of a small number of people” and “not doing those things,” overwhelming public consensus doesn’t enter into it. Jobs lose. That’s what we talk about when we talk about a political system that is titled towards the 1 percent: it’s about who benefits from the choices that get made.

(As if to perfectly illustrate this point, Republicans in the U.S. House are—at a time of 15 percent poverty rates and stubbornly high unemployment—looking at cutting funding for food aid.)

Again, this is a question of priorities. Whether out of ideological commitment, deference to big donors, or disinterest in cooperating with President Obama, every Republican Senator is likely to vote against jobs today, in defiance of public opinion.

So watch your Senators today, and learn their priorities.

Photo from Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

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