Full legislative agenda awaits Congress when it returns

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Although the situation in Syria will be the dominant concern when Congress returns to Washington Sept. 9, lawmakers will have a full agenda of other important issues to address. This includes raising the debt ceiling and enacting a budget that invests in high-quality public services, such as education and healthcare, while not slashing programs that benefit our nation's most vulnerable citizens.

The battle over the federal budget will resume in both the Senate and the House, and will touch on a host of AFT priorities, including preserving Social Security and Medicare and ending the mandatory spending cuts put in place by the sequester. In addition, the AFT will be urging Congress to adopt a budget that does not hurt the middle class or destroy investments in programs that help our economy grow, such as education, infrastructure improvements and job training.

In the Senate, legislation to overturn a recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act is a top priority. During a speech at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated that he has asked Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to examine dangerous voter suppression efforts, and propose steps the Senate can take to ensure the right of every American to cast a ballot.

Also in the Senate, there is a possibility that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be brought to the floor. The rewrite of No Child Left Behind was passed by the Senate Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in June. While the Strengthening America's Schools Act, as it is called, makes some commonsense revisions to NCLB, more changes are necessary to address problems in states that function under waivers and to correct the policy mistakes made under the Race to the Top program. In addition, should the bill reach the Senate floor, there will likely be divisive legislative fights over private school vouchers and Title I portability.

Other education issues that may be considered in the Senate are the reauthorization of the Child Care Development Block Grant, President Obama's Preschool for All proposal and the Workforce Investment Act reauthorization.

In the House, at least one misguided piece of legislation will be brought to the floor for a vote. Rather than reducing the cost of higher education or protecting students or faculty from fraud and abuse, the Supporting Academic Freedom Through Regulatory Relief Act (H.R. 2637) would reinstate loopholes in the law that allow for-profit institutions to continue to reap large profits by exploiting students and taxpayers. The bill also attempts to stop the Department of Education from proceeding with a regulatory process that would protect students and taxpayers with a strong gainful-employment rule.

With the Senate having completed its version of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, the AFT has been pushing for the House to address the issue. The AFT is urging passage of a plan that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, strengthens our borders, ensures immigrant children can go to school without fear, keeps families together, and promotes safe and secure jobs for all workers.

This fall will be a busy time on Capitol Hill. Watch for more information about how you can help push the union's priorities in the coming months by contacting your senators and representatives. [Jane Meroney, Jennifer Scully, Tor Cowan, Dan Gursky]

September 5, 2013