ENDA finds no support among Nebraska senators

Debate continues in the Senate this week on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act  — the first major gay rights legislation considered in Washington during the past three years.

Six Republicans joined all 55 members of the Democratic caucus to remove a procedural hurdle and allow debate to continue.

Nebraska Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer were not among the handful of Republicans who supported the measure. Johanns has a long history of being non-gay friendly while in the Senate, as mayor of Lincoln and governor of Nebraska.

Voting with the Democratic majority were Republican Sens. Ayotte of New Hampshire, Collins of Maine, Hatch of Utah, Heller of Nevada, Kirk of Illinois, and Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Exempted from ENDA are religious organizations. It also would not apply to businesses with less than 15 employees.

ENDA could pass the Senate by the end of the week, but House Speaker John Boehner said Monday he does not support ENDA, so it will face much stiffer opposition in the House.

The last major gay-rights legislation passed by Congress was the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in 2010. All three of Nebraska’s congressmen, Reps. Terry, Smith and Fortenberry, voted to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson also voted in favor of the measure; Sen. Mike Johanns did not.

Only 21 states have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and Nebraska is not among them.

Neighboring states Colorado and Iowa have employment protections. Kansas and Wyoming have laws or regulations that protect gay public employees.  Missouri offers protection only to gay employees of the state’s executive branch.

It was not immediately clear how ENDA would affect Nebraska because it is an at-will employment state. Employees may be fired for any reason or no reason at all.

Nebraska also doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, civil partnerships or domestic partnerships because of an amendment to the state constitution voters approved in 2000.

Nonetheless, gay rights issues are heating up in the state as it tries to cope with the realities of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that threw out parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, clearing the way for same-sex couples to receive federal tax, health, and pension benefits.

Nebraska is also having to deal with a growing number of  same-sex couples wed in one of the 14 states that recognize gay marriage but now live in Nebraska, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Three gay couples recently sued the state for the right to adopt or become foster parents. Nebraska also prohibits same-sex couples from adopting their partner’s children, and it requires couples legally married in other states to file state income taxes as single people.

State legislators are talking about remedying the matter by allowing civil unions, which would seem to be the most palatable to Nebraska voters.

For the record, Nebraska is not one of the states Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called out last week for refusing to issue ID cards to the spouses and children of gay members of the National Guard. The IDs allow them access to bases and commissaries.

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Update: The Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 2013 passed the Senate on Thursday Nov. 7 on a vote of 64-32. Nebraska Sens. Johanns and Fischer voted against it. The bill now moves to the House, where Speaker John Boehner is not expected to bring it up for debate.

Neither Nebraska senator has posted anything on their Senate website about ENDA or gay rights, but Joe Morton at the Omaha World-Herald caught up with both of them.  (Midlands Republicans in Senate to vote against workplace gay bias bill, published Nov. 7, 2013.)

Johanns said in a statement released after the earlier vote:  “I firmly believe every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but I have serious concerns about the impact this legislation would have on religious organizations and private business owners with deeply-held religious beliefs.”

Fischer said she would have wanted greater protection for religious organizations, but the rest of her comments were somewhat confusing.

“I don’t like the fact that we carve out all these special privileges. That has always, always bothered me,” Fischer told Morton. “I don’t think anybody, anybody should be discriminated against. As a woman I shouldn’t be discriminated against. I don’t think it’s helpful to always carve this out, though, saying women shouldn’t be discriminated against.”

The confusing aspect of her comment is that women do have legal protections from discrimination in the workplace.

No problem saying no

Senate Republicans, including Nebraska Sens. Fischer and Johanns,, opposed the nomination Thursday of  Rep. Mel Watts(R-NC).

On Thursday, Senate Republicans, including Nebraska Sens. Fischer and Johanns, held up the nomination of Rep. Mel Watts (D-NC).

The refusal of Senate Republicans to allow  a vote on two of President Obama’s nominees Thursday may or may not signal the  end a truce hammered out months ago to avoid the “nuclear option.”

What’s  certain, though, is that neither Sens. Deb Fischer nor Mike Johanns have any problem voting against Obama’s nominees.  This year has brought a long stream of  “nay” votes on presidential nominees from the two Nebraskans.

Both voted to block the nominations of  U.S. Rep. Mel Watt to be director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Patricia Millett to be a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

During her freshman year in the Senate, Fischer also voted against the otherwise successful nominations of:

Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense, Jacob Lew as secretary of the Treasury, John Brennan as CIA director,  Richard Cordray as director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, Thomas Perez as secretary of Labor, Regina McCarthy as EPA administrator, Bryon T. Jones as director of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Elaine Kaplan as a judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, plus all four of Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.

Johanns, meanwhile, has been only slightly more disposed to vote in favor of the president’s nominees. He supported the nominations of Lew and fellow Nebraskan Hagel, but voted with Fischer against the rest.

Notice a theme? Most of these people were appointed to a body with a GOP hot-button word in their names: firearms, labor, consumer protection, environment.

Standing out from this list is John Kerry, president Obama’s choice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of State. Fischer and Johanns both supported the choice of Kerry, but it is rare for a nominee who is a sitting member of Congress not to be confirmed for a presidential appointment.

It is so rare, in fact, that Mel Watt on Thursday became the first member of Congress to be blocked from a presidential appointment since the Civil War. The two Republican senators who broke ranks to vote for Watt were Rob Portman of Ohio and Richard Burr of Watt’s home state of North Carolina.

Watt has represented North Carolina in the House since 1992. He is a graduate of Yale University’s law school and a veteran member of the House Financial Services Committee. The Federal Housing Finance Agency oversees the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Republicans said Watt was too political, but Senate Republicans also blocked President Obama’s last nominee to run the same agency. There were no explanations for the votes on the Senate websites of either Fischer or Johanns on Thursday.

Democrats currently have only 55 members, meaning they need the votes of at least five Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster or pass a measure requiring a two-thirds majority.

Thursday’s votes might motivate Senate Democrats to reconsider the “nuclear option” rules change that would allow nominations to be confirmed with only 51 votes.  Vice President Joe Biden, who was in the Senate on Thursday to swear in its newest member, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, said he supported the change.

In a statement after the votes, Majority Leader Harry Reid also seemed to signal a willingness to reconsider the rules change.

Last summer, Democrats were so frustrated with the inability to advance executive branch nominees, that they began considering the nuclear option. It was dropped when Senate Republicans agreed not to block non-judicial appointees and then voted on several Obama nominees.

“I will exercise my right as Majority Leader to reconsider these nominations at some point in the very near future,” Reid said in his statement Thursday. “I hope my Republican colleagues will reconsider their continued run of unprecedented obstructionism. Something has to change, an I hope we can make the changes necessary through cooperation.”

Republicans wasted no time repudiating the idea of a rules change, generally describing the possibility as an unprecedented power grab.

Update: In the Nov. 1, 2013, edition of the Omaha-World Herald, Joseph Morton quoted Johanns as saying that the D.C. court’s workload did not justify another judge and that Watt was not qualified for the job.

“The level of sophistication in terms of working with the financial sector — I just didn’t see it,” Johanns was quoted as saying. ” This is one of the most complex jobs in the federal government, it truly is, and it deals with trillions of dollars. Personally, I wouldn’t be qualified for such a job.” (See: Senators derail two Obama nominees, Nov. 1, 2013, omaha.com)

Back to business as usual

With less than 24 hours left until a likely default, the House and Senate reached agreement late Wednesday on a deal that reopens the federal government and avoids a breach of the debt ceiling.

By a margin of  81-19 in the Senate and 285-144 in the House, Congress approved H.R. 2775 to fund the government through Jan. 15 and covers the debt limit until Feb. 7

Nebraska’s entire delegation, Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, and Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Lee Terry and Adrian Smith, supported the measure.

Smith, Terry and Fortenberry were among the 87 House Republicans who joined 198 Democrats in passing the budget and debt deal. In the Senate, the measure gained the support of all Democrats and all but 18 Republicans.

Voting against it were such vocal opponents as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas,  Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mike Lee of Utah. There was concern earlier in the day that Cruz would use a procedural move to delay the vote until at least Thursday.

The Senate voted about 9 p.m. CDT and the House voted just after 11:15 p.m. CDT.

In the end, Republicans had little to show for the 16-day shutdown of the federal government and stretching the debt ceiling to the brink. They failed to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, although they did win a minor concession involving income verification for those receiving federal subsidies to buy health insurance.

No answers for the folks back home

Republican rhetoric about the debt ceiling is beginning to sound amazingly like the rhetoric that proceeded the government shutdown. Whether the GOP’s “no big deal” talk is a signal that Republicans are ready to take us into a default remains to be seen, but it isn’t encouraging.

Pro-shutdown and default positions, once staked out only by Congress’ newest and most extreme members, have lately taken on a mainstream flavor. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a member of the Senate since 2005, who previously served three terms in the U.S. House, joined the bandwagon Monday.

“There’s no such thing as a debt ceiling in this country because it’s never not been increased, and that’s why we’re $17 trillion in debt,” said Coburn said Monday on “CBS This Morning.”

“I would dispel the rumor that’s going around that you hear on every newscast that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we’ll default on our debt. We won’t. We’ll continue to pay our interest, we’ll continue to redeem bonds, and we’ll issue new bonds to replace them.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said Sunday that default could be avoided if the U.S. prioritizes the payment of its obligations. That could mean officials would have to weigh making payments to foreign bondholders against sending out Social Security or veterans’ benefits because the federal government spends more  each month than it takes in.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said that “prioritization” is just another word for default.  It is also unknown what damage an attempt at prioritization would have on the economy and financial markets. America has never defaulted and neither has it ever tried such a prioritization plan.

Just the fact that the debt ceiling matter is up for debate is making markets jittery. In 2011, there was so little faith that the parties would end their bickering in time to avoid default.  Standard & Poor’s downgraded American’s credit rating for the first time in history.  The last country to make it back to AAA after a downgrade spent 19 years doing so.

Sadly it’s hard to find a member of the Nebraska Congressional delegation who  is taking  a firm stance on the debt ceiling.  None has posted their position on their official web site, even though the deadline is next week.  In the media, their comments are mostly limited to the old-news shutdown.

Do Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer think no Nebraskans own Treasury bills? Do Reps. Lee Terry, Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith not understand that many of the elderly are already worried about their November Social Security checks?

2nd District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was one of those who supported the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling that led to the credit downgrade. He has  since said he would not support another debt ceiling fight — but not recently.

Freshman Sen. Deb Fischer may even support the drama of the twin shutdown-default fights. In one of her September columns, Fischer wrote:

“This pair of decisions present Congress with the opportunity to address our out-of-control spending. Nebraskans know that Congress doesn’t act unless it is forced to do so. That’s why I look forward to the debates on our rising debt.”

Nebraskans should be getting loud-and-clear answers from their Washington delegation. We saw our home values and retirement accounts trashed in the 2008 economic crisis. We’ve been through the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Our families have suffered layoffs, and now the hardships of the shutdown. We are a nation at war. Why do our leaders in Washington think it’s OK to shut down the government while our military fights a war that Congress created?

The “Prioritization” option may seem like an alternative, but it’s not. The nation’s payment system is automated for efficiency. Even if the Treasury Department could find enough fountain pens, paper ledgers and green eye shades to un-automate, there are too many bills and too few Treasury employees to make it work. Most of them at home, furloughed.

Nebraska’s senior senator, Mike Johanns, has voted both for and against past debt ceiling increases, but hasn’t said whether he would support an increase this month. He did say, however, that he’s worried about the situation. Aren’t we all?

Government in bits and pieces

As constituents begin bringing the heat to Washington lawmakers about the government shutdown, the Republican majority in the House tried Tuesday to re-open pieces of the government they closed hours earlier.

First, House leaders sought to reopen such  Washington tourist attractions as the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution and the memorials to Presidents Lincoln and Washington, veterans of the Vietnam and World War II , Holocaust victims and other sites.

Second, they tried to reopen the flow of federal funding to the District of Columbia. DC residents pay taxes like all Americans but, because the federal government does not pay taxes on any of the DC real estate it occupies, it sends money to the district to pay its share. During the 1995-’96 shutdowns, garbage collection in DC was one of the first casualties, and the capital soon became a stinky mess.

Finally, the House attempted to restore funding so veterans’ benefit would continue.

All three measures failed because, rather than following normal procedure that allows them to pass bills by a simple majority, House leaders chose to bring them to the floor using a procedure that requires the approval of two-thirds of the members. Republicans hold a majority, but they need the votes of Democrats to reach that higher threshold, and the Democrats have so-far objected to funding government in bits and pieces.

Less than a full day into the shutdown, Washington had already become an ugly place. A planeload of World War II veterans, the  85- and 90-year-old remnants of America’s Greatest Generation was turned away from the World War II Memorial because all National Park Service sites have been closed. They were fortunately “rescued” by a group from Capitol Hill that moved some of the barricades so they could enter.

The barriers were replaced first-thing Wednesday morning, but the closed memorial and the more planeloads of elderly veterans arriving later on “honor flights” from the states was too fine of a photo-op for Republicans to miss. A group of far-right members of Congress, including Rep. Michele Bachman, joined the Republican National Chairman there as he unveiled a check to pay for five security guards to protect the 7.4-acre memorial during the shutdown.

In another largely symbolic move Tuesday, House Republicans selected what are called “conferees” to negotiate with the Senate to resolve their differences on H.J. Res. 59 and reopen the government. Traditionally, conflicts in budget bills are hashed out in meetings between members of the House and Senate. Those conferences are typically held early in the year, however, so Congress can pass a complete budget during the Spring.

But House Republicans had already poisoned that well by declining 18 earlier invitations from the Senate to meet. Besides, there is no budget pending to keep the government open for a full year. The current resolution would only keep the government open through Nov. 15 — a mere six weeks. The only conflict preventing continuing government operation is the Affordable Care Act. Both sides are taking an all-or-nothing stance on Obamacare.

What that means for Nebraskans is that they should step away from the mail box.  Mail will continue to be delivered, but no one in Washington is working to process your passport application, tax return,  security clearance or Small Business Administration loan. If you do business with the federal government, there will be no new contracts to bid on and no checks processed to pay for the work you’ve already done.  You can’t even start planning your family vacation to Yellowstone next year because most federal websites have closed, too.

Why all the problems? Because killing Obamacare is more important to some Republicans than keeping the government going.  Republicans have spent the past three decades gerrymandering congressional districts to the point where they don’t have to worry about re-election. In most districts, there is no way a Republican congressman could ever lose anyone other than another Republican candidate. If you don’t vote for them, there are plenty of others who will.

And you thought it was only federal employees who were non-essential.

Washington Drama Queens

Legislation to continue funding the federal government after Monday, continues to ping-pong between the House and the Senate.

In Sunday’s wee hours, the House passed a new version of H.J. Res. 59, the Continuing Appropriations Resolution 2014, with a poison pill potent enough to ensure its rejection by the Senate.

By a vote of 231-192, the House agreed to send to the Senate a measure that would keep the government open for another six weeks, until Dec. 15, but would delay the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, for a year and would delay contraceptive coverage for women from employer-paid health insurance policies.

All three of Nebraska’s members of Congress, Lee Terry, Adrian Smith and Jeff Fortenberry, voted for the measure.

Just two days earlier, the Senate stripped out a similar attempt to kill Obamacare and passed a “clean” funding measure on a vote of 54-44, with both Nebraska senators, Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, voting against the clean bill.

Although the Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate. With the votes of just 51 of the 54 Democrats in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid could essentially kill the House’s version of the resolution. That would only add pressure to Speaker John Boehner to come up with a spending measure that does not defund the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Reid has assured Boehner that a provision to kill or delay Obamacare will never pass the Senate and, even if does, it faces a certain veto from President Obama, and Republicans lack the votes to override that veto.

Altogether, it means a government shutdown at 12:01 Tuesday, the same day Americans now without health insurance can start shopping for coverage. The full roll-out of the Affordable Care Act begins Jan. 1.

The House’s move to delay Obamacare for a year seems to be just a set-up for continuing chaos in Washington. Twelve months from now, the House will still be controlled by the Republicans, the Democrats will still control the Senate, and President Obama will still be president. Because the Republican measure funds the government only until Dec. 15, the likelihood of a government shutdown over the holidays would continue to loom large.

The House also passed a provision Sunday that would keep paychecks flowing to the military personnel in the event of a shutdown, but some 7,000 other government employees would be without paychecks for the duration.

Also looming on the horizon is the additional drama that will come in October from raising the debt ceiling. House Republicans now plan to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to a laundry list of GOP priorities, including a year-long delay of the ACA and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future government spending. It merely gives the government the authorization to pay the bills that Congress has already incurred from previous budgets. By not raising the debt ceiling, Congress ensures that government bills will go unpaid.

Defaulting on financial obligations has much the same creditworthy-crashing effect on our government as it would on any household, only the impact on world markets would be 300 million percent larger.

More chaos. More drama. When does it stop?

Trickling down in Nebraska

With the House of Representatives having just passed a stunning $40 billion cut in food assistance to the poor, it’s a good time to examine the relationship between federal budgets and state budges.

A large percentage of the money in any state’s budget comes from the federal government. It may be as little as 20 percent in Alaska, or as much as 49 percent in Mississippi. In Nebraska, exactly 36. 23 percent of Nebraska’s general revenues in 2012 came from the federal government, according to the Tax Foundation.

The means that more than one-third of the dollars used to run the state of Nebraska every year, comes from the federal government. It also means that when Congress makes deep cuts to the federal budget, your state lawmakers have to make the hard decision to either cut state services or replace those federal dollars by raising state sales and income taxes.

Either decision means a loss for Nebraskans: Less money in their pockets or fewer services to meet their needs. And, when the state government has less money, it gives less money to counties, cities, school districts, and universities.

City parks are not maintained, teacher-student ratios get larger, tuition goes up, fewer police officers patrol the streets, and libraries close early. That is, unless city and school officials decide to make up for those lost state dollars by raising your property and city sales taxes. Again, a lose-lose scenario for Nebraskans.

Most Nebraskans are justifiably concerned about federal debt and deficits. As responsible, educated people, they know trillion-dollar deficits aren’t good for our country. We are a hardy people, used to weathering storms and making sacrifices. We’d love to see more fiscal discipline in Washington, and most of us would be happy to see cuts or an end to some of the programs that those in our nation’s Capitol deem essential.

The problem is that Nebraskans in Washington are never going to ask you what you can live without — what you want to see cut. Moreover, your House and Senate members are never going to tell you how the decisions they make will impact individual Nebraskans — you, your family, your neighbors, your fellow congregants.

And your governor and state lawmakers are never going to ask you whether it’s worth it to you to pay a few more dollars in taxes to replace the money that Washington didn’t send. They aren’t going to ask you which budget holes that Washington created are the ones you think are important enough to fill with state money.

In fact, no politicians on any level will ever talk about the individual effects that will come from service cuts. They don’t want it to ever occur to you that they are in any way responsible for, say,  bigger potholes, longer waits at the DMV, or your nephew’s lost job.

If it ever occurs to you that the lawmakers you voted for are responsible for your inconvenience — the camping trip your family can’t take because of an early shut-down of some state parks — it will also occur to you that the people you elected are not the wonderful folks looking out for your best interests that you thought they were when you were in the voting booth.

Compared to some other states, politics is a polite sport in Nebraska. School board members, university regents, mayors, state lawmakers, the governor — none of them are willing to point the finger at anyone else when cuts have to be made. Why? Because they have their own pet legislation to pass, agendas to pursue, and ambitions to fill. Everybody gets along better when they all go along.

You Voted for them Nebraska, tries to avoid intrastate politics. There are other people, organizations and sites that do that and do it very well. We just want to remind you that there is a very real connection between the budgets passed in Washington and the quality of your life in Nebraska.

Sources cited: The Tax Foundation, taxfoundation.org

© uvoted4them, 2013