Fall 2006 - Congressional Update

October 26, 2006

The following is a quick update on issues with which we were engaged this fall. Congress was not able to complete its work and will return after the election for a “lame duck” session. Those sessions are often unpredictable but especially so if there are significant changes in the membership of the Congress.

Iraq war: On November 15, the Senate approved 79 - 19 an amendment sponsored by the Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist (R-TN) and Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, John Warner (R-VA, Episcopalian) calling for a "phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq.” It was the first time a bipartisan majority of the Senate has pushed the Bush Administration for more accountability as well as raising possible US troop withdrawal from Iraq. Interestingly, this vote preceded Warner’s trip to Iraq after which he sent a signal of even greater concern by asserting that the US should consider a change of course if the violence continues. On June 16, the House approved a resolution supporting the war by 256 - 153, with 5 voting present. The resolution endorsed the mission in Iraq and opposed a withdrawal date – no amendments were allowed.

After Iraq, the two issues that received the most wide-spread media coverage and attention from Congress were immigration reform and torture. Unfortunately, in both instances, the final bills approved by Congress were not what we sought. The final bill on torture allows an administration to utilize its own interpretation of the Geneva Conventions and narrows the definition of torture.

Immigration: After nearly nine months of debate, Congress was unable to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. House members spent the summer holding election driven field hearings focusing on tightening the border between the United States and Mexico while the Senate pushed for legislation that would offer a guest worker program and pathway to citizenship for the undocumented population. By September, the band of Senators who supported a comprehensive approach to immigration legislation began to crumble. The House and Senate passed enforcement-first legislation providing funding for 700 miles of fencing as well as a “virtual fence” of sensors, cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles and other surveillance technology. Comprehensive immigration reform awaits the 110th Congress.

With so much attention focused on immigration and torture, Congress spent little time on important international issues such as the AIDS pandemic and women’s health.

The Global Fund: As has been the case in past years, the Senate provided a substantially greater funding level than the House and President Bush for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. The final funding level for this critical account will be resolved in the post-election lame-duck session.

On the critical issue of access to family-planning services abroad, the White House again chose to withhold any US contribution to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Despite overwhelming evidence that the UNFPA is helping China implement voluntary family planning programs, the White House asserts that the UNFPA is aiding China’s coercive family planning programs. That conclusion has been found to be without basis by numerous independent reviews, including a team handpicked by the Administration to travel to China.

There was a solid victory on nuclear bunker busters, a new generation of small nuclear weapons whose development is supported by the President. For the second year in a row, Congress refused to fund these weapons.

Domestically, most of the focus was on immigration this fall. During the lame duck session, we anticipate continuing our efforts to see that domestic spending on education, health care, and other important issues is not cut further. The House and Senate positions are too far apart for them to agree on a final Budget Resolution but individual spending items are being voted on through the appropriations process. It is not clear if there will be another opportunity to vote to raise the minimum wage. While we are glad that falling gas prices may reduce pressure to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the fact is that this Congress has yet to pass energy legislation that will deal with the long term issues of oil dependence and global warming.