Kill the bill Coalition fights budget that doles out billions to drug companies, cuts for students

By Tim Wheeler

WASHINGTON — The Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities (ECAP), uniting labor, community and low-income advocacy groups, is staging vigils at congressional offices, telling lawmakers to reject a Budget Reconciliation Act that inflicts $42 billion in Medicaid cuts and slashes billions more from other social programs over the next decade.

A weeklong national “call-in” to the offices of U.S. congresspersons was launched Jan. 23, to urge them to vote down the 774-page bill on Feb. 1.

The Republican leadership rammed the original bill through the House mostly unread in the dead of night, Dec. 19, by a razor thin 212-206 vote. The Senate approved a somewhat modified version Dec. 21 on a 51-50 vote with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote. Because the Senate’s version is slightly different, the House must vote again on final passage. A switch of only four Republican votes to “no” could kill the bill.

The call-in is sponsored by the Coalition on Human Needs (CHN), representing more than 700 low-income advocacy groups. The American Friends Service Committee is providing a toll-free number, (800) 426-8073.

Debbie Weinstein, CHN’s executive director, told the World the coalition is staging more than 100 vigils and congressional visits targeting moderate Republicans such as Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays.

The GOP leadership says cuts in Medicaid and other vital programs are essential to offset the cost of assisting Hurricane Katrina victims and reducing the federal deficit.

“It is outrageous that they would ask one set of poor people to pay to help another set of poor people while also pushing through billions in tax cuts for the affluent,” Weinstein said. “They are asking the most vulnerable people to sacrifice, people not able to take those golfing trips to Scotland.” She was referring to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s golf junket paid for by Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Weinstein predicted that in his Jan. 31 State of the Union address President George W. Bush will dwell on rooting out Abramoff-style corruption. “But the next day they are scheduled to vote on a budget reconciliation that is the fruit of corruption,” she said. “It is legalized corruption where special interests have the inside track and make gains at the expense of everyone else.”

The budget reconciliation bill doles out billions to pharmaceutical giants and HMOs through higher co-payments and deductibles, she said. “There are far too many provisions in this bill that hurt children, seniors, people with disabilities, students and struggling families. The House should vote ‘no’ and simply kill this bill.”

Jackie Lee, an ECAP organizer in Dover, Del., said a coalition that includes the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and other unions and community groups will stage a vigil outside the Wilmington office of Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.) to urge him to vote against the budget bill.

Castle “may not have realized when they voted in the middle of the night just how much these cuts are going to hurt,” Lee told the World. “We think these lawmakers are very worried. This is an election year and frustrated voters are paying attention to how their congressmen vote on these budget cuts.”

Connecticut Citizen Action organizer Melanie Kelly told the World, “We will have 72-hour round-the-clock vigils starting Jan. 30 in front of the offices of Reps. Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons, all Republicans. This budget reconciliation will cut social services needed here in Connecticut and across the country while they give billions in new tax breaks for the wealthy.”

Lester Holmes, a Michigan Citizen Action organizer in Detroit, said they are focusing on GOP Rep. Fred Upton, who represents the Kalamazoo area. “We’re talking about billions in cuts to Medicaid health benefits that poor families need to take care of their children. We’re talking about $12.7 billion in cuts for student aid over the next five years. A lot of dreams are going to die because youth can’t afford a college education. I couldn’t have gotten through Wilberforce [University] without grants and other student aid. There are many thousands of inner-city youth who have a dream. Are we going to let that dream die?”

In Sacramento, Calif., Michael Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty said a broad state coalition is demanding that Republican Rep. Mary Bono vote “no” on the budget bill. “She announced she would vote against the bill if it contained co-pays for children under Medicaid,” he said. “Well, the bill contains co-pays for children under Medicaid and she voted for it anyway. We are demanding that she keep her promise and vote ‘no’ on final passage.”

The coalition is also demanding that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speak out against the bill, which would inflict $5 billion in cuts to TANF and other child welfare programs in California in the first five years alone. That does not include billions in cuts to Medicaid in California, Herald said. “If Congress approves this budget reconciliation and also approves tax cuts for the rich, voters will understand very soon the misplaced priorities of this Congress,” he said. “They will remember next November.”