Congress returns to busy schedule

By Zachary Toillion

After a monthlong recess, Congress returned to Washington on September 9th to begin a series of high profile votes on multiple issues, namely campaign finance reform, gender pay equity legislation, the minimum wage, and funding to fight the terrorist group ISIS.

One issue is notably absent from Congress’s agenda; immigration. After bipartisan immigration reform was passed by a health margin in the Senate last summer, it stalled in the House of Representatives. This year, Obama strongly hinted that he would act unilaterally to reform the nation’s immigration system since more comprehensive immigration reform looked politically dead. Leaks to multiple news agencies as early as July from the White House suggested Obama would take the action “by the end of summer”

On September 9th, President Obama put that notion to rest. In an interview on Meet the Press, President Obama sidestepped immediate action on immigration, stating, “I want to spend some time, even as we’re getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we’re doing this, why it’s the right thing for the American people, why it’s the right thing for the American economy.” Obama also stated that politics contributed to the delay, adding “The truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem,” referring to the humanitarian crisis on the Southern border that occurred over the Summer. According to polling conducted by ABC news, a slim majority of voters favor the President reforming immigration via executive order. Even larger margins favored a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and securing the southern border in the same poll.

After the interview President Obama drew heavy criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike. Republicans have consistently argued that unilateral action on immigration reform is outside the power of the Presidency. Many in President Obama’s liberal base feel betrayed by the measure, and yet another example of Obama putting politics before their policy goals. Obama’s announcement all but guarantees Congress will not vote on Immigration reform, but challenges from the Republican House of Representatives could arise after Obama takes the action presumably in late November.

The two items acted on first by Congress, were hot button political issues including a constitutional amendment creating more stringent rules on campaign finance, and gender pay equity legislation. Both items were introduced in the Senate, currently controlled by Democrats. Observers note that these two issues are politically very popular with the electorate, but have very little chance of passing the Republican-held house. This has led Republicans to blast the move as political posturing by Democrats at risk of losing re-election nationwide. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted the votes, stating, “It’s painfully clear the majority leader’s priorities have to do with Nov. 4, So, it’s all politics all the time, no matter what.” Sen. Reid, the Democratic Majority leader who brought the bills to a floor vote stated, “You’re either for campaign spending reform or not, This constitutional amendment is what we need to bring sanity back to elections and restore Americans’ confidence in our democracy.”

As Congress reconvened, there were initially signs of bipartisanship, with many Republicans breaking ranks to join the Democratic caucus to bring key bills up for debate.The first order of business taken up by the Senate was a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling from 2010 that lifted limits on corporate spending on political campaigns. 23 Republicans joined the Democrats in voting for the measure to come to debate. The vote passed 79-18 and was supported by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

The constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United would limit campaign contributions from corporations and establish more oversight of political donations. The proposed amendment would also also bar the Supreme Court from reversing future campaign finance reform passed by Congress. Overturning the Citizen’s United decision is overwhelmingly popular, garner over 75 percent support from Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike since 2010. Opponents of the measure believe the proposal is censorship of free speech Sen Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is opposed to the measure argued, “By limiting the amount of money individuals and corporations can spend on elections, this amendment would clearly limit their rights under the First Amendment,”. On September 11th, the amendment was ultimately voted down by a Republican filibuster on a 54-42 vote.

A pay equity bill also received enough votes to enter the debate phase on September 10th, passing on a 73-25 vote. Sen. Alexander voted against the measure, while Sen. Corker voted in favor. All Democrat voted for the measure, as well as 19 Republicans. In order to pass the Senate, the measure would need to garner 60 votes.

Dubbed “The Paycheck Fairness Act”, the bill would compel employers to pay female workers the same wages as their male counterparts. The bill would also close loopholes in the court system revolving gender pay equity and would be enforced by an increase into federal enforcement.The bill’s co-sponsor, Debbie Stabenow described her support for the bill by stating, “Women and their families deserve a fair shot to get ahead in life by making sure they are not discriminated against at work,” adding, “Women, many of whom are breadwinners for their families, should not be asked to work a job that opals them less for doing the same work as their male counterparts.” The same bill was voted down by the Senate in April of this year. Passage of this bill would be the most significant gender workplace legislation since the 2009 passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, legislation that makes it easier for victims of pay discrimination to bring suits in court.

In addition to the more politically divisive issues, Congress will also have to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government. On December 12th 2013, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) formed a two year bipartisan budget deal that would only require Congress to pass continuing resolutions until 2013, unless more spending cuts were requested. Under the Ryan/Murray plan, the yearly deficit is reduced by roughly 7 billion yearly. This plan could come under fire from conservatives who believe the measure does not go far enough in terms of deficit reduction. Thus fat, deals between the Republican House of Representatives, the Democratic Senate, and President Obama have reduced the deficit by 60 percent, cutting the yearly budget deficit from $1.4 trillion to roughly $600 billion. Congress has until the end of September to pass the budget resolution, a feat that is likely due to the close proximity of the mid term elections.

On September 11th, President Obama called House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and asked him to delay a vote on the budget in order to incorporate the new ISIS funding request into a possible package. A vote is expected in the coming days. In addition to a funding vote, a bipartisan group in Congress are calling for an official vote to authorize military force to combat ISIS, despite the President’s preference to take unilateral action on the ISIS issue. It is widely believed that a vote on the authorization of military against ISIS would pass both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support.

The next agenda item Congress is likely to vote on is a raise in the minimum wage. The proposal would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour and index the wage to inflation, similar to programs like Social Security. Democrats have used the issue of raising the minimum wage as a tool for Democratic candidates in key Senate races throughout the country-particularly Iowa, Arkansas, and Michigan, so the possibility remains the vote could be filibustered by the Republican minority- a minority that largely sees the recent votes by Congressional Democrats as political posturing for the upcoming midterm elections.  Indeed, the issues Democrats are pursing have broad support from the American electorate. A poll conducted by Democracy found that 90 percent of Americans support pay equity legislation. A poll from CNN found 70 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage.

The broad support for a raise in the minimum wage has led Republicans in a key state to alter their policy. In Arkansas, raising the minimum wage will be a ballot measure, and Republicans vying for office have all rushed to embrace the plan-including their candidates for Senator, Governor, and a number of House seats. Candidates in Michigan have also signed on to a watered down minimum wage bil, and in Louisiana, the likely nominee for Senate has backed small changes to the wage. In states like Iowa, Alaska, North Carolina, and Georgia, Democratic candidates have made their opponent’s opposition to the minimum wage a central campaign issue.

In the coming month, a Congress known predominately for its inability to vote on legislation will do the exact opposite. They will vote on a number of high profile resolutions covering various policy areas, even taking votes that could prove controversial later down the line.

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