WASHINGTON – The majority Republican 108th Congress went home for the holidays this week having doled out sugar plums for their wealthy contributors but not even a lump of coal for millions of long-term unemployed.
“It’s almost inconceivable to me that Republican leaders are poised to play the Grinch again,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), commenting on the refusal of the GOP-controlled House and Senate to approve an additional extension in jobless benefits.
The one ray of sunshine is that Senate Democrats blocked approval until January of the whopping $832 billion omnibus spending bill loaded with goodies for the rich. It means that labor and its allies will have more time to mount a fight to preserve overtime protection for millions of workers and for extension of jobless benefits when Congress returns next year. George W. Bush had threatened to veto the spending bill unless the lawmakers removed from it a measure that preserves overtime coverage for 8 million workers. The GOP leadership gladly axed the overtime provision.
There are officially 8.7 million unemployed people. That does not count the millions who have stopped looking for nonexistent jobs or the “underemployed” who can’t find full-time employment. Two million jobless have exhausted the 26 weeks of state unemployment insurance and are running out of the 13 weeks of extended benefits. Because Congress refused to approve another extension, some 80,000 to 90,000 unemployed workers each week will lose all benefits.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney blasted the lawmakers for bowing to Bush veto threats and “strong-arm tactics,” calling it “beyond comprehension that the House approved the 2004 omnibus spending bill without protecting workers’ overtime pay and extending unemployment benefits for millions of American workers.” His call on Senate Democrats to block the measure was answered when Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) objected to a motion for unanimous consent on the omnibus bill.
The first session of the 108th Congress will be remembered for approving an unprecedented resolution authorizing preemptive war on Iraq, a nation that did not attack the U.S., and for approving Bush’s $1.7 trillion tax gift to the rich. It will live in infamy for enacting a Medicare prescription drug plan that provides little or no benefits and even raises costs for some seniors, while enriching drug and insurance company profits and opening the door to privatization of Medicare. These issues are expected to loom large in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections.
Bush signed the Medicare bill into law at a White House ceremony with all the trappings of an election campaign rally. Lurking in the shadows was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who openly advocates letting Medicare “wither on the vine.”
The drug plan was denounced at a Capitol Hill rally, Dec. 8, as “Bad for seniors, good for special interests.” Referring to Bush and the Republican House and Senate leadership, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) thundered, “You sold us out.” He pointed out that Medicare was enacted by a majority Democratic House and Senate in 1965 and signed by President Lyndon Johnson over stubborn Republican opposition. Kennedy blasted the “HMO-coddling, drug-company loving, Medicare-destroying, Social Security-hating Bush administration” and vowed to defend Medicare “every day of every week of every year” from the GOP privatizers.
In a statement released at the rally, the Alliance for Retired Americans said, “It’s disgraceful that members of Congress have passed a bad bill so they can go home and claim a hollow political victory. This is a sad day for America’s seniors.”
Already, lawmakers have introduced legislation to repeal sections of the drug bill, including a provision that prohibits the federal government from using its enormous bargaining power to negotiate lower drug prices from drug companies.
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