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Bipartisan Agreement Reached on First Six Spending Bills; Senate Committee Advances Su Nomination

Washington Update


On Thursday, February 29, the Senate approved a stopgap funding bill, preventing a partial government shutdown and giving lawmakers more time to finalize government funding measures. The stopgap passed in a  77-13 vote in the Senate, with the House passing it in a 320-99 vote. The stopgap extends funding on a short-term basis — giving two new deadlines of March 8 and March 22 to pass the remaining spending bills. 

On Sunday, March 3, congressional leaders released text of the first six spending bills, which lawmakers hope to pass this week to again avoid a partial government shutdown. These six bills include departments of Agriculture-FDA, Commerce-Justice and Science, Energy and Water Development, Interior, Military Construction- Veterans Affairs, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson is facing pressure to tout GOP ‘wins’ since conservatives feel he walked away with nothing. In a perceived win for Democrats, the spending package provides $7 billion for the WIC nutrition assistance program for moms and babies, a $1 billion increase over current levels. The remaining six bills, set to expire after March 22, will be more difficult to negotiate and pass because of more controversial policy decisions. Republicans and Democrats are still at odds over how to split up a limited pot of money across various issues in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget, including salaries, detention beds, immigration processing and asylum policies, technology and other border security efforts. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Chair Congressman Robert Aderhold (AL) said appropriators are still working toward an agreement on the funding details of his bill. 

On Sunday, March 3, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) released a statement where he announced his support for the package and affirmed it maintains some Democratic priorities, including full funding of the WIC program. 

It is expected that the House will take up the bipartisan package of six bills early this week under suspension of the rules. Appropriators remain optimistic the fourth stopgap this fiscal year will provide enough time to finalize negotiations on all of the funding bills. 

Click here to access the package of six bills.

Click here to access Schumer’s statement.

Click here to access Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray’s press release on the bipartisan minibus package. 

Short-Term Pell

Last week, House lawmakers were set to consider the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act (HR 6585), which would expand the Pell Grant to cover short-term training programs, but instead scrapped plans to vote on the legislation. The House bill would allow students to use Pell grants for programs as short as eight weeks long at all types of institutions, including online and for-profit schools. Last week, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) both came out against the measure in separate outreach and letters to lawmakers.

Although the teachers unions support the concept of increasing funding to short-term programs, they worry that the legislation would direct resources to low-quality training programs and potentially strain the Pell grant budget moving forward. They also expressed concern at the pay-for in the bill — funding the expansion of Pell grants by charging several dozen of the nation’s wealthiest universities for the costs of federal student loan balances that aren’t repaid by their students, including balances discharged under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness or income-driven repayment programs. In their letter, AFT President Randi Weingarten indicated that such a policy would result in “perverse incentives” for universities to direct students away from entering public service.  Similarly, the NEA’s letter posited that the funding provisions could potentially also discourage wealthy institutions from enrolling lower-income students, many of whom are minority students. 

Several higher education groups, led by the American Council on Education, have also spoken out against the bill, urging House leadership to postpone a vote. There remain several champions for the bill, however, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbying groups in the Skills First Coalition.

Click here to access the American Council on Education letter.

Click here to access the National Education Association letter.

Click here to access the American Federation of Teachers letter.

Senate Committee Votes on Su Nomination

On Tuesday, February 27, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted 11-10 along party lines to advance Julie Su’s nomination for U.S. Department of Labor Secretary. Su has held the position for almost a full year in an interim capacity. The HELP committee previously advanced her nomination last April. Su has faced skepticism from a few Senate Democrats and opposition from Republicans that put her chances of a successful floor vote into question. Republicans have not been happy the Biden administration has allowed Su to lead the Department indefinitely as acting secretary. HELP Committee Ranking Member, Senator Bill Cassidy, also criticized Democrats for holding the vote without a formal public hearing on the nomination. Reduce Duplication and Improve Access On Wednesday, February 28, Congressman Lloyd Smucker (PA) and Brad Wenstrup (OH) introduced the Reduce Duplication and Improve Access to Work Act (HR 7446), which would grant states flexibility to devote a portion of funds received from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to workforce training programs organized under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Current law permits states to transfer up to 30 percent of their TANF funds to other funds supporting child care and other social services programs. This legislation would make WIOA programs eligible to receive TANF funds under the continued 30 percent cap. The legislation has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee for consideration.

Click here to access the press release.

Artificial Intelligence

According to Senator Mike Rounds (SD), the Senate’s bipartisan artificial intelligence working group plans to issue a report on possible AI legislation by the “end of March.” Rounds, one of the group's leaders, said the report will contain “some guidelines and some ideas” for Senate committees that are expected to produce AI bills relevant to their policy sector, calling the report a path forward for the committees to begin work. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee ranking member Bill Cassidy (LA) had previously put out an AI framework for education, health and other policy areas of the committee last year which specified that students must be taught to use AI to “strengthen rather than replace their critical thinking skills.”  Additional concerns in the report included the lack of “industry-recognized credentials” for career and technical education AI courses. The panel convened a subcommittee hearing on AI and health last year, but it is unclear whether the committee plans to pursue any AI-related education legislation or hearings in the near future.

Walsh USPS Nomination

On Thursday, February 29, President Biden nominated former Labor Secretary and current NHL Players’ Associate executive director Marty Walsh to serve as a governor of the U.S. Postal Service — a bipartisan board role that is not a full-time position. If confirmed by the Senate, Walsh will become one of nine USPS governors that make up the board.

USCM/Comcast Project Up Grant Now Open for Applications

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, in partnership with Comcast’s Project Up, is now accepting applications for the 2024 Talent for Tomorrow: Digital Equity Challenge. The Challenge will award ten competitive grants to help cities expand local workforce and career readiness programs that provide digital access, improve economic mobility, and support digital skills and creativity. The deadline for submitting Part I of the application, which consists of a cover page and 500-word executive summary of your program, is March 15, 2024.

Click here to learn more and submit an application.

Initial Jobless Claims

In the week ending February 24, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 215,000, an increase of 13,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised up by 1,000 from 201,000 to 202,000. The 4-week moving average was 212,500, a decrease of 3,000 from the previous week's revised average. The previous week's average was revised up by 250 from 215,250 to 215,500. The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 1.3 percent for the week ending February 17, an increase of 0.1 percentage point from the previous week's unrevised rate.

Click here to read the full report.

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