News Politics

Senators Reach Agreement on Emergency Unemployment Assistance Extension (Updated)

Adele M. Stan

Senate leaders from both parties arrived at an agreement last week to restore emergency unemployment assistance to the long-term jobless. Even if the Senate votes yes, there's no guarantee it will pass the House.

UPDATE: On March 19, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) issued a statement effectively declaring dead S. 2148, the Senate bill that would have extended emergency unemployment assistance to the long-term unemployed. Citing a letter to Senate leaders from the National Association of State Workforce Agencies that raised concerns with the implementation of some of the bill’s provisions, Boehner said he was “willing to look at extending emergency unemployment benefits again” if “Washington Democrats” would craft a bill that was more to his liking. Since House Republicans allowed the unemployment assistance to expire in December, Boehner has insisted that any renewal of the emergency assistance to be accompanied by spending cuts in other programs and a guarantee of job growth.

To unemployed Americans who have been without a job for six months or more, the U.S. Senate offered a glimmer of hope last week that the emergency unemployment insurance benefits that ran out three days after Christmas might be restored by the arrival of spring. But just a glimmer.

On Thursday, Senate leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties reached a deal that sets the stage for a vote in the chamber when senators return from a week-long St. Patrick’s Day recess. The deal is expected to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster. But its prospects in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are less certain.

Crafted by Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV), the $10 billion package would extend the unemployment assistance by five months, retroactive to the December 28 date when they last expired for the long-term unemployed. The New York Times reports that the additional funding would be paid for “by extending certain fees levied by United States Customs and Border Protection as well as by temporarily changing the way private corporations fund their pensions.”

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In a written statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said of the deal, “This bipartisan compromise will help Americans who depend on unemployment insurance to pay the rent while they continue looking for a job. In Nevada alone, 26,000 unemployed workers would see their lifeline restored. I am confident that we will pass this bill in the coming days. More than two million Americans depend on Congress approving this agreement.”

As the mid-term congressional elections approach, some Republicans may be more inclined to support the unemployment assistance extension, given that polls, such as this January survey conducted by Quinnipiac University, shows majority support for renewing the benefits. However, although the poll showed a total of 58 percent in favor of the extension, when broken out along party lines, a majority of Republicans opposed it. And the electorate of a mid-term election typically comprises the most ideological voters in each party.

With many House districts now drawn in a heavily gerrymandered fashion under the control of Republican state legislatures and governing entities, a significant number of congressional members need to heed the demands of their base, rather than the sentiments of the national majority, in order to retain their seats.

Assuming the Senate passes the deal hammered out by Reed and Heller, whether House leaders will endorse the legislation remains to be seen.

After the deal was announced late Thursday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement saying that President Obama was calling on both the House and the Senate to pass the deal into law.

“The President has repeatedly called on Congress to take action on a compromise solution to extend this vital lifeline for millions of hard-working Americans as they look for work and support their families,” Carney wrote. “This is not just the right thing to do for these Americans looking for work, it’s the right thing to do for our economy.”

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Legislator Confirms Vote on House Conscience Protections (Updated)

Christine Grimaldi

The Conscience Protection Act would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face supposed coercion to provide abortion care or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in abortion care. The Act allows providers to sue not only for threats, but also for perceived threats.

UPDATE: July 14, 10 a.m.: The House passed the Conscience Protection Act Wednesday night in a largely party line 245-182 vote. Prior to floor consideration, House Republicans stripped the text of an unrelated Senate-passed bill (S. 304) and replaced it with the Conscience Protection Act. They likely did so to skip the Senate committee referral process, House Democratic aides told Rewire, expediting consideration across the capitol and, in theory, ushering a final bill to the president’s desk. President Barack Obama, however, would veto the Conscience Protection Act, according to a statement of administration policy.

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote next Wednesday on legislation that would allow a broadened swath of health-care providers to sue if they’re supposedly coerced into providing abortion care, or if they face discrimination for refusing to provide such care, according to a prominent anti-choice lawmaker.

Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) told Rewire in a Friday morning interview that House leadership confirmed a vote on the Conscience Protection Act (H.R. 4828) for July 13, days before the chamber adjourns for the presidential nominating conventions and the August recess. Pitts said he expects the bill to be brought up as a standalone measure, rather than as an amendment to any of the spending bills that have seen Republican amendments attacking a range of reproductive health care and LGBTQ protections.

The office of U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had no immediate comment.

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Pitts’ remarks came during and after he hosted a “Forum on Conscience Protections” in the House Energy and Commerce Committee room to garner support for the bill.

Energy and Commerce Democrats boycotted the forum, a House Democratic aide told Rewire in a subsequent interview.

Legislation Builds on Precedent

Conscience protections are nothing new, the aide said. The latest iteration is a successor to the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (S. 1919/H.R. 940), which remains pending in the House and U.S. Senate. There’s also the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (S. 50) and similarly named bills in both chambers. The fiscal year 2017 Labor, Health, and Human Services funding bill, which guts Title X and Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants, includes the Health Care Conscience Rights Act.

At the leadership level, Ryan’s recently released health-care plan mimics key provisions in the Conscience Protection Act. Both would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face alleged coercion or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in abortion care. The Conscience Protection Act goes a step further, allowing providers to sue not only for threats, but also for perceived threats.

The proposals would also codify and expand the Weldon Amendment, named for former Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL), who participated in Pitts’ conscience forum. The Weldon Amendment prohibits states that receive federal family planning funding from discriminating against health-care plans based on whether they cover abortion care. Currently, Congress must pass Weldon every year as an amendment to annual appropriations bills.

Administration Action Provides Impetus

There hadn’t been much public dialogue around conscience protections with the exception of some anti-choice groups that “have really been all over it,” the aide said. The National Right to Life issued an action alert, as did the Susan B. Anthony List, to galvanize support for the Conscience Protection Act.

The relative silence on the issue began to break after the Obama administration took a stand on abortion care in June.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights rejected anti-choice groups’ “right of conscience” complaint against California’s requirement that insurance plans must cover elective abortions under the definition of “basic health-care services.” Anti-choice groups had argued the California law violates the Weldon Amendment, but the administration found otherwise.

The California decision reinvigorated support for the Conscience Protection Act, the aide said. Ryan’s earlier health-care plan also specifically references the decision.

“We think this is going to be a big issue for us throughout the rest of this Congress,” the aide said.

Aide Outlines Additional Consequences

Beyond creating a private right of action and codifying Weldon, the Conscience Protection Act contains additional consequences for abortion care, the aide said.

The legislation would expand the definition of health-care providers to employers, social service organizations, and any other entity that offers insurance coverage, allowing them to raise objections under Weldon, the aide said. The aide characterized the change as a direct response to the California decision.

The legislation also broadens the list of objectionable services to include facilitating or making arrangements for abortion care, according to the aide.

The Republican-dominated House is likely to pass the Conscience Protection Act. But the aide did not expect it to advance in the Senate, which would all but certainly require a 60-vote threshold for such a controversial measure. More than anything, the aide said, the bill seems to be catering to anti-choice groups and long-time proponents of conscience clauses.

“The House oftentimes will pass these kinds of anti-choice proposals, and then they just go nowhere in the Senate,” the aide said.

News Politics

Senate Democrats Object to Contraception Limits in Blocking GOP Zika Agreement

Christine Grimaldi

“Republicans don’t want to treat Zika as an emergency and they don’t want to expand access to birth control," Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said in a statement. "It begs the question: Will they be willing to pay the costs associated with every child born in this country with Zika-related birth defects?”

Democrats in the U.S. Senate Tuesday temporarily blocked a $1.1 billion GOP-engineered agreement to combat the Zika virus amid objections to the strings attached, including restrictions on contraceptive access.

Their Republican counterparts needed 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a vote on the measure. The 52-48 vote fell short of that threshold.

The Zika aid is part of a sweeping conference report (H. Rept. 114-640) that also provides fiscal year 2017 military construction and veterans affairs funding. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the conference report last week in a largely party-line vote with few Democrats on board. Prior to the vote, Democrats involved in negotiations had refused to sign off on the plan, which would limit contraceptive services in the United States and Puerto Rico and falls short of the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request for emergency supplemental Zika funding.

As Rewire reported last week, the Republican agreement limits women to obtaining contraceptive services from public health departments, hospitals, and Medicaid Managed Care clinics. This could prove particularly challenging for women in Puerto Rico, a sprawling territory with few such options. Republicans would also prohibit subgrants to outside groups “that could provide important services to hard-to-reach populations, especially hard-to-reach populations of women that want to access contraceptive services,” according to a Democratic summary.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took to the Senate floor to argue that the Republican agreement actually provides “more resources for women’s health services” through the three options.

“It’s really puzzling to hear Democrats claim to be advocates for women[’s] health measures when they are the ones trying to block the Zika legislation and its critical resources to protect women’s health,” McConnell said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), however, criticized Republicans for effectively prohibiting contraceptive services between many women and their doctors or primary care clinics.

“I know the issue of birth control is difficult for some, but we know that Zika has terrible consequences for women and babies,” Mikulski said in a statement. “Republicans don’t want to treat Zika as an emergency and they don’t want to expand access to birth control. It begs the question: Will they be willing to pay the costs associated with every child born in this country with Zika-related birth defects?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Zika causes microcephaly, an incurable neurological disorder that impairs brain and skull growth in utero, as well as other severe fetal brain defects. Advocates have said the virus underscores the urgent need for better contraceptive access, particularly since Zika can be sexually transmitted.

Online requests for abortion medications have spiked in Latin American countries that issued warnings to pregnant people about Zika-related complications yet outlaw or restrict the health care, according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine study.

A White House spokesperson June 23 said that President Barack Obama would veto the funding package in its current form. McConnell will attempt to bring up the Republican agreement after the Senate returns from its July 4 recess, according to a leadership spokesperson.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and other party leaders in the chamber called for a new round of Zika talks.

“The conference report includes a restriction that would limit funding for providers of birth control services—a backdoor way of restricting care from women’s health providers like Planned Parenthood and family planning centers that would have serious consequences for women’s health,” they said in a letter to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).