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National NOW Times >> Spring, 2001 >> Article

Legislative Update - A Whole New World in D.C.

by Jan Erickson

The November elections showed once again that few things in politics are predictable. Who would have guessed that we would have a president who was not popularly elected, propelled into office by a three-vote electoral college margin on the basis of electoral manipulation, voter intimidation and a five-to-four Supreme Court vote? It took more than $100 million in campaign spending and the camouflaging of his true right-wing political coloration, but George W. Bush has assumed the mantle of the world’s most powerful leader.

Exit polls showed that the vast majority of voters agreed with Vice President Al Gore’s more progressive agenda, but that did not translate to Democrats winning control of the White House or either house of Congress. Some experts have argued that the politics of appealing to the middle—which both candidates practiced—results in a confused and divided electorate. The extremely close presidential vote and nearly even split in Congress is strong evidence that this may be true.

Bush Shows His Right-Wing Ties
The absence of a strong electoral mandate does not mean that the Bush administration will exercise restraint and moderation. Already that point has been well demonstrated in the selection of several cabinet members from what one wit dubbed as the “Taliban wing of the Republican party.” The worst of the lot are former Missouri Governor and Senator John Ashcroft, an extreme right-winger, for attorney general, and former governor of Wisconsin Tommy Thompson, who is anti-abortion rights and pushed punishing state welfare initiatives, for secretary of Health and Human Services.

NOW leaders, activists and allies worked mightily to oppose these nominees and were able to win the highest number of votes ever (42) against an attorney general candidate. As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, the attorney general is in a position to wield a great deal of power. Ashcroft’s record is one of virulent opposition to abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, civil rights and affirmative action programs. Concerns about him include that he will do little to enforce the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and prosecute clinic terrorists; will not show leadership for Violence Against Women programs and anti-hate crimes initiatives; and will likely seek out right-wing judicial candidates.

A unanimous confirmation vote for Thompson may signal that the Senate will support more harsh welfare-to-work schemes when they consider re-authorization of the 1996 welfare act.

Reproductive Rights In Danger
In addition to reinstating the global gag rule, Bush is reported to have told abortion rights opponents gathered in Washington for their annual protest on the Roe v. Wade anniversary that his faith-based initiatives will be useful in advancing their agenda. Critics are concerned that federal funds could easily be used for proselytizing and discrimination as new proposals do not contain safeguards against misuse and exempt those organization from equal opportunity laws.

Next on the target list, apparently, is withdrawing mifepristone (RU-486) from the market and ordering the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to review alleged safety concerns. Released last fall after a 12-year delay and extensive use around the world, mifepristone has one of the strongest safety records of any drug reviewed by the FDA. Measures have also been introduced in Congress to restrict which doctors can prescribe the drug.

NOW expects other strategies to limit women’s reproductive rights, such as stopping embryonic stem cell research, elevating fetal rights and proposing new variations on abortion procedures bans. Highly-placed support for extremist measures will invigorate NOW’s opponents inside and outside of Congress.

The new administration is also sure to mount assaults on environmental and workplace safety regulations, to attempt to limit powers of the Federal Communications Commission and other regulatory bodies, and to increase defense spending and enact massive tax cuts favoring the well-to-do.

Bipartisanship or Concession?
Until feminists can make changes in the makeup of Congress, NOW cannot expect much, if any, positive action on priority issues like pay equity, universal health care, an equal rights amendment, comprehensive child care, expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act and preservation of Social Security.

Certainly, it is difficult to imagine what a closely divided 107th Congress will do. A clear and present danger is the potential for capitulation by Democrats in the name of bipartisanship. Inter-party co-operation—the current mantra—could threaten the integrity of such important programs as Social Security, Medicare, Title IX (equal educational opportunities) and others. Many insiders, though, are projecting a continuing pattern of gridlock.

The House of Representatives, split with 221 Republicans to 212 Democrats (and two Independents), is slightly more hostile to abortion rights than last Congress. There are about 221 abortion rights opponents, 140 abortion rights supporters and another 77 members who have mixed records. It is apparent that the House will continue to pass harmful and regressive legislation in this area.

A ray of hope for NOW activists comes from a decidedly more moderate Senate. The upper body, as everyone knows by now, is 50-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting a deciding vote when there is a tie. Thirty-five Senators are consistent in their support of abortion rights, 18 have mixed votes and 47 are anti-abortion rights, three fewer than in the last Congress.

New power-sharing arrangements have been adopted by the Senate, giving the Democrats more opportunities to influence committee agendas and floor votes. The addition of four new women Senators (for a record total of 13 women), coupled with several new progressive men, may stop bad House-passed legislation and help move forward a few women-friendly bills.

What’s Coming Up Next?
A concerted effort to authorize education vouchers—by any name—in the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main bill for federal aid to education.

Possible threats to gender equity programs and Title IX.

A major push to at least partially privatize Social Security and Medicare.

A rapid drive to pass regressive, anti-consumer bankruptcy reform legislation that would further empower banking and credit card companies. (As the paper goes to press, the House has already passed such a bill and has sent it over to the Senate, where Sen. Feingold (D-WI) has put a hold on it.)

Continuing and creative efforts to further limit access to birth control and abortion services.

NOW activists and allies intend to promote a re-structured welfare re-authorization plan, improvements in federal aid for child care and early childhood development programs, and new violence against women programs that aid battered women in the workplace. Progressives will all be working for increasing the minimum wage and expanding federal hate crimes statutes—both of which nearly passed last Congress.

At last some good news.

Just before the 106th Congress adjourned, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act passed, providing $995 million over ten years for states to pay for expanded care for low-income and uninsured women. If states participate, women who have been diagnosed with cancer through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program can now receive critically needed treatment.

Finally, child care advocates won an unconditional victory. Congress agreed in December to provide a total of $817 million increase in the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a 69 percent increase in discretionary funding that will give 150,000 more children affordable care; a $933 million increase for Head Start, allowing nearly a million more eligible children to participate; and an 88 percent increase in funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers as well as expansion of child care programs on 300 more college campuses.

Feminists are in for a long two years until the next round of congressional elections, but there will be nonetheless some opportunities to advance NOW’s issues while stopping the right-wing legislative juggernaut. Activists who are not already on NOW’s action alert email list should sign up right away!

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