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Legislative Wrap-up and a Look Ahead
1/6/2006
LEGISLATIVE UPDATE

DOMESTIC:
Federal FY’06 Budget:  With our ecumenical partners, the Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, and Methodist General Board of Church and Society, we successfully defeated efforts to cut the Food Stamp Program and some of the harshest cuts to the Medicaid program before the Senate narrowly passed the budget reconciliation package.  The vote was 51-50 and the Vice President was required to return to Washington in the middle of an overseas trip because there were not enough Republicans in favor of the overall bill.  While the House previously passed its version of the budget bill, the Senate incorporated several small changes that must be approved by the House before it can be signed by the President. While unlikely, it is possible that the FY ’06 Federal Budget bill could be defeated when the House reconvenes February 1.

Katrina Response Legislation:  Congress has appropriated $62.3 billion in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and an additional $19 billion in tax relief for victims.  Federal policies have also been altered to assist survivors, including the reinstatement of Davis-Bacon wage requirements.  Congress is expected to consider several additional legislative packages in response to the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast Region this session.

Protecting the Arctic Refuge: Including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the budget reconciliation package ultimately proved unsuccessful, because it would have caused the budget reconciliation package to fail in the House.  In a dramatic last-ditch attempt to gain passage of drilling, the Arctic provision was dropped from the budget bill and added to the FY ’06 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, which was considered a “must pass” bill before Congress could adjourn for the Christmas recess.  This effort was successfully blocked as both Democrats and key moderate Republicans rallied to keep the Arctic out of the defense spending bill.  Bishop Mark McDonald and a number of other bishops including Bishop Packard of the Chaplaincies office were engaged in contacting target senators to ensure that the Arctic Refuge would remain protected from development. Because of the determination of those in favor of drilling in the Arctic, it seems likely we will be fighting this battle again in 2006.

Minimum Wage/Living Wage:  While there were several pieces of minimum wage legislation proposed during the last session of Congress, none made it to a final vote. Currently, there are no votes scheduled on minimum wage legislation. We continue to work with the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Coalition on a long term campaign, “Living Wage Days,” set to begin around the Martin Luther King Holiday to build support for a just living wage in the U.S.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families:  Reauthorization was included in the FY ’06 Budget Reconciliation bill and is now pending before the House.  It includes measures we have worked hard against including adding additional work hours without needed childcare funding. A final vote on these measures is expected in February 2006.

Violence Against Women Act (VAWA):  The House and Senate successfully passed VAWA reauthorization legislation before adjourning for the Christmas recess and has since been signed by President Bush.  Now we must work to see that the necessary funds are appropriated.    

Immigration Reform:  Recently, the House passed enforcement-only legislation emphasizing detention, increased border control, and criminalizing unlawful presence in the US. The Office of Government Relations and the EPPN will continue to work with Episcopal Migration Ministries to support comprehensive immigration reform and oppose legislation which focuses exclusively on enforcement (Exec Council Res. NAC032, 2005). The Senate is expected to address immigration reform in February or March.

INTERNATIONAL ISSUES:

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs):  Two prominent world events in 2005 - the June G8 Summit and the U.N. September World Summit – devoted large segments of their agendas to the MDGs. These meetings produced: (1) a strong reaffirmation of the MDGs by the international community (despite the Bush Administration’s lobbying to abandon them); (2) a commitment by G8 leaders to significantly increased foreign assistance by 2010; and (3) 100% debt cancellation for a group of the world’s most impoverished countries.  However, the foreign-aid commitment falls short of what most experts believe is necessary for the MDGs to be met, while the debt-cancellation plan excludes more than 50 countries for whom debt is significantly hampering progress toward the MDGs.  Advocacy and education around the MDGs will continue to be a top priority during 2006.

Orphans and Vulnerable Children:  In a surprising and significant victory, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Assistance to Orphans and Other Vulnerable Children Act of 2005.  The legislation, for which the Episcopal Church has been a principal advocate, provides – for the first time in U.S. statute – a comprehensive and holistic approach to the worldwide humanitarian crisis of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).  This includes children who suffer from poverty, armed conflict, displacement, trafficking, and pandemic disease such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.  Congress and the president now must follow through with funding and strategies for implementing the bill.  The Episcopal Church joined several other organizations in submitting such a set of strategies to Congress and will be following these developments in 2006.

HIV/AIDS Funding:  FY’06 funding for the nation’s international HIV/AIDS accounts saw modest steps in the right direction.  Congress defied President Bush’s request to slash funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria but ultimately fell short of levels sought by the HIV/AIDS advocacy community.  Overall funding for the HIV-AIDS crisis in the Foreign Operations appropriations bill was set by Congress at $2.8 billion - $258 million more than President Bush sought but $200 million less than the level initially passed by the Senate bill.  Another smaller pot of money for the crisis was provided by Congress through the Labor/Health and Human Service Appropriations bill.  Advocates against the global HIV/AIDS crisis are hoping for more significant funding gains in 2006.

Nuclear Proliferation:  In a welcome victory, House negotiators blocked the Bush Administration’s request for funding to pursue research and development on a new nuclear-weapons system known popularly as the “bunker buster” because of its capacity to penetrate deep beneath the earth before exploding with a force capable of destroying bunkers and fall-out shelters.   Funding for these programs has been regularly requested for several years; it is likely we will be fighting this again in 2006.

Darfur:  Despite having declared the situation in Darfur genocide and vowing to take necessary steps to stem the atrocities, in a surprising and disappointing move, the Administration and allies in Congress removed $50 million in U.S. support for African Union peacekeeping forces in Darfur from appropriations legislation.   Congress also adjourned for the year without passing key legislation to strengthen and fund the U.S. response to the crisis, the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act.  We will continue to highlight this issue and push for the necessary funding for peacekeeping.

Middle East: The Office of Government Relations continues to advocate with the administration and Members of Congress for a two-state solution, emphasizing the need to return to negotiations, the importance of the status of Jerusalem, opposing the expansion of settlements and the wall/fence/barrier on Palestinian land. Working with Churches for Middle East Peace and others, our office will keep our focus on these and other issues relates to the Holy Land.



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