WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s enthusiasm last spring over the possibilities that the new Democratic Senate majority could align with pro-women Republicans has yielded to the grim realization that a post-Sept. 11 world has put progressive legislation on hold and relegates the burning issues for women to the back burner.
With the suddenly acquired power to set the legislative schedule, the Democratic leadership, knowing that it had some strong allies in the Republican party, had embarked on an ambitious domestic policy agenda that included wide-ranging legislation to benefit women.
Today, however, much of that work has stalled, as Congress works feverishly to pass new legislation broadening security, expanding defense spending and stimulating the economy.
Health care policy, minimum wage, pension reform, hate crimes protections, bankruptcy assistance, immigration reform–all had been identified as key action items following the appointment of a Democrat from South Dakota, Thomas Daschle, as majority leader. But inquiries into the status of some of last spring’s priorities for women have revealed that virtually all work on these items has stopped.
Even as long-time supporters of women-friendly public policy such as California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein continue to support such legislation, they acknowledge a massive shift in focus.
Priorities Are Defense Spending, Anti-Terror, Economic Stimulus–Not Women
“Senator Feinstein has not lost sight of issues like minimum wage and patients’ bill of rights. She is still committed to pursuing them,” said spokesperson Jim Hock. However, such items are no longer topics of discussion on Capitol Hill. “No one really knows when they will come up on the schedule again. And, as a member of the appropriations committee, the senator’s priorities right now are defense spending, anti-terrorism and economic stimulus,” he added.
At the staff level, where legislation is hammered out under pressure and often in difficult circumstances, roles have been altered as the discussion has changed. Prior to Sept. 11, committee-level conversations on issues ranging from hate crimes legislation to immigration reform involved efforts to expand civil rights protections.
Now, the focus has changed, and negotiations center around attempts to prevent the restriction of civil liberties in light of pressing national security issues, according to staff members. For example, concerns about provisions in the recently enacted anti-terrorism legislation, such as indefinite detentions of aliens who have not been charged with crimes, are now weighed against the need to protect the country from further devastation.
“This is much bigger than Hill politics,” said a veteran Democratic staff member speaking on background. “As an American people, our psyche is deeply divided between wanting to do anything to make it safe for our kids and giving up everything we stand for in the process. It is not easy to balance national security and civil liberties in this environment.”
While work on issues such as work-family balance and prescription drug benefits has been halted, at least temporarily, new battles to protect women have been joined as one economic stimulus package was passed in the House of Representatives and other versions are debated in the Senate.
Many Low-Wage Workers Don’t Qualify for Unemployment, Other Benefits
Both Democratic and Republican proposals include provisions to expand unemployment insurance coverage so that workers directly affected by the terrorism attacks could receive some compensation. At issue is who qualifies for assistance and what form the assistance should take.
Democratic critics argue that the Republican-backed package that passed in the House overwhelmingly benefits corporations in the form of tax breaks, at the expense of those individuals who most need the help. These include low-wage workers, people leaving welfare for work and part-time workers, the majority of whom are women. Many of these workers do not currently qualify for unemployment insurance or tax cuts, and therefore, would be ineligible to receive any added benefits that might result from passage of the proposed legislation.
Majority Leader Daschle reaffirmed a commitment to the nation’s women, as the wrangling over the nature of the economic stimulus package continued. “Women hold 70 percent of the part-time jobs in America and 65 percent of all service industry jobs–the two parts of our workforce hardest hit in the current economic slowdown,” he said in a statement to Women’s Enews. “Democrats believe that a real economic recovery package cannot ignore these women and their families.”
Democratic proposals include rebate checks for workers who pay payroll taxes but not income taxes, extended unemployment benefits and assistance in maintaining health care coverage. Sen. Daschle expressed concern that Republican proposals do not include such protections.
“We are disappointed that the economic recovery plans proposed so far by Republicans include neither extended jobless benefits nor extended health coverage,” he said.
Stimulus Debate Reveals Basic, at Times Ugly, Discord Over Working Poor
Republicans argue that unemployed workers who receive more benefits will be less inclined to return to work, while corporate tax breaks will encourage the nations’ businesses to expand production, requiring companies to hire more workers–a more effective route to long-term economic health.
However, studies by the Congressional Research Service suggest that jobless workers who receive extended benefits will spend more than they might have spent without the additional support. This spending itself will help stimulate demand for products–even though they may be the most basic necessities, such as diapers for babies and food for the family.
The demand, in turn, will help spark a recovery, the studies suggest. Reports by the non-partisan research arm of the Congress also suggest that the impact of such measures could have a more productive impact on the economy than across-the-board individual and corporate tax rate cuts.
The debate has revealed a fundamental–and sometimes nasty–disagreement about the nature of the nation’s working poor. The Senate Republican Policy Committee, chaired by Republican Larry Craig of Idaho, drafted a response to the argument that expanded support for jobless workers would stimulate a recovery.
“Wow. All that activity just because some unemployed worker with a high propensity to consume went out and bought some potato chips and a six pack,” the Republican statement said.
So, while the debate over the most effective route to restoring the country to economic health continues, the promise of a more secure future for the nation’s women remains uncertain. There is widespread recognition that the landscape has been forever altered.
“Yes, we are still fighting for choice, for all those other things (we talked about last June),” said a Democratic staffer, “But now the big-ticket fight is the economic stimulus package–do you focus on the working poor or not?”
As for the domestic agenda items slated for priority treatment prior to Sept. 11, no one on the Hill can say when, or if, they will come back for discussion again.
Ann Moline is a free-lance writer in Washington.
For more information:
Sen. Thomas Daschle, D-S.D.:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.: