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National NOW Times >> Fall 2006 >> Article

Legislative Update

By Jan Erickson
Director of Government Relations

Congress Goes Home in October—Republicans May Lose House Control

Recent polls have shown that as many as 40 U.S. House seats held by Republicans could be lost to Democratic challengers in the November elections. With Republican control of the House in jeopardy, Congressional leaders made plans to adjourn by September 27 in order to allow incumbents to return to their home districts for re-election campaigning. Voters in many states are not happy with Republican leadership—especially on the topic of the long-running and costly war in Iraq. High gasoline prices, a possible slide in the housing market, and stagnating wages also have a lot to do with the discontent.

In September, with recess looming, there was a rush to complete the '07 fiscal year budget along with a big push for controversial conservative agenda items such as a harsh immigration "reform," a near repeal of the estate tax and the creation of "sunset commissions" that could approve devastating cuts to a wide array of federal programs, with little public input. The Republican leadership wants to focus on so-called security issues, in an effort to try to contrast the supposedly tough Republican stance with the Democrats' alleged softer stance, and thereby give them a needed edge in close election races.

An important bonus in over-turning the Republican majority in the House would be the almost assured election of current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to be Speaker of the House. More than just the historically significant act of electing the first woman Speaker would be the opportunity to move socially progressive legislation—like expanded health care, reform of the punitive TANF (welfare) program, passage of the minimum wage—and to bring a halt to attacks on abortion and contraceptive access. And the House, under Nancy Pelosi, will be better able to exercise its oversight duties and make use of their subpoena powers to investigate lawbreaking by the Bush Administration and its allies.

FDA Finally Acts on EC With Plan B Approval

After an inexcusable delay of five and one half years following a petition to make Plan B emergency contraception (EC) available without prescription, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted final approval to Barr Pharmaceuticals to market this highly effective drug. Though there is abundant evidence that this is a safe and reliable contraceptive for women of all ages, the FDA is only allowing non-prescription sale to women age 18 and above. Women under 18 will need a prescription to obtain Plan B—despite the fact that two FDA advisory committees and five FDA division officials recommended that EC be made available to all women of child-bearing age.

NOW and other groups strongly objected to the age restriction, noting that there are roughly 235,000 unintended pregnancies annually among women aged 15 to 17. Access to a prescription for EC in a timely manner for women in this age group is difficult—and perhaps that is the intent of right-wing, religious opponents of emergency contraception who would rather see a young teen go through an unwanted pregnancy. These groups irresponsibly asserted that EC would increase promiscuity among teen-agers, despite research showing the opposite result.

In addition to our objection to denying non-prescription access to women under 18, NOW is concerned that various tactics will be used to restrict and discourage access. We are recommending that there be Congressional oversight of the so-called risk management plan that the FDA has asked the manufacturer to adopt and that a procedure be developed by which the age limitation can be removed. See the article on page 5 for more information on our proposals.

We also oppose stocking EC behind the counter, as called for by the FDA-imposed "risk management" plan, deceptively dubbed the Convenient Access, Responsible Education (CARE) program. That creates a barrier for women 18 and over, whose pharmacists may simply refuse to hand over the EC package, just as some refuse to fill prescriptions for conventional birth control. We hope to include our recommendations, including ones that assure availability of EC at emergency rooms, rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, in a package of remedial federal legislation.

"Teen Endangerment Act" Passes but Stalled

On Tuesday, July 26, the U.S. Senate joined with their House colleagues in passing, 65-34, their version of legislation that will endanger the health and lives of many young women, or make felons out of their trusted relatives and clergy. The so-called Child Custody Protection Act (S. 403/H.R. 748) would make it a federal crime to accompany a minor (in states where parental notification or consent laws are in force) who is obtaining an abortion in a nearby state (even if that is the nearest clinic), thus making criminals of people helping teens who are unable to involve a parent in their decision. Because the House passed a stricter version, there must be a conference to hash out a final bill. One bright spot is that the Democratic leaders refused the usual pro forma consent to creating the conference committee, and time may run out on the session before the committee can be formed and take action. If that happens (and that was apparently the intent), then our opponents will have to start all over after the elections, perhaps dealing with a new Congress that is less amenable to restrictions.

Harsh Immigration Reform Pending

The House and Senate have yet to merge their two very different bills (S. 2611 /H.R. 4437) that were passed earlier this year to address the issue of undocumented immigrants, now an estimated 12 million persons. During the August recess, members from both houses conducted hearings in their home districts to build support for their differing versions. The Senate legislation, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, a compromise bill offered by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) would adopt a three-tiered approach based on the numbers of years an immigrant has been in the U.S., and sets up a complicated path to citizenship, requiring immigrants to leave the country and then apply for visas or citizenship, depending on their length of U.S. residency. S. 2611 passed on May 25 (62-36), with 38 Democrats joining 23 Republicans to fight off the worst of several very harsh amendments.

The House—always more radically conservative—adopted legislation (H.R. 4437, The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005) offered by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that would make it a felony instead of a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be in the U.S. without authorization, would require employers to verify the legal status of their workers, would deputize police along the border to act as immigration agents (creating a terrible situation for battered women, who will fear that reporting the abuse to the local police will result directly in their deportation), and the bill will also allow agents to summarily deport people in border areas who have no documentation, with little or no due process. H.R. 4437 also contains authorization for construction of a wall along certain parts of the U.S.-Mexico border and calls for enhanced surveillance.

Estate Tax Raid On Treasury

Last minute calls and determined advocacy on behalf of women, children and hard-working families convinced Senators to vote against the Treasury-raiding estate tax reduction—though the measure contained our long-desired minimum wage increase. On August 3, the Senate effectively defeated the measure, 56-42, by refusing to end debate (cloture) on the House bill. The Senate Republican leadership had hoped to rubberstamp that bill and send it to the President as a gift to their millionaire contributors (and to themselves, of course). The bill would exempt from taxation all estates worth as much as $5 million—or $10 million for a married couple—and apply a 15 percent tax rate to inheritances above that threshold, and up to $25 million. For estates exceeding $25 million in value, the tax rate would be 30 percent. In an attempt to lure moderate Republicans and Democrats into voting for the $800 billion giveaway, the bill also included a "sweetener" in the form of a modest raise in the minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour over the next three years, which would still leave many families with incomes below the poverty level, while raiding the treasury of $800 billion that could be used for human needs programs and Katrina relief.

Federal Marriage Amendment

While the Senate failed on June 7 to pass this proposed Constitutional amendment (S. J. Res. 1, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.) to prohibit same sex marriage, the effort is alive and well in the states and the issue is being used to turn out conservative voters in many election campaigns. The House bill, H.J. Res. 88, sponsored by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), failed on July 18 by a vote of 236-187 (two-thirds required to adopt). The makeup of next year's Congress will determine the fate of this discriminatory initiative.

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