WASHINGTON – Members of the U.S. House and Senate have gone home for Christmas, leaving a government in partial shut-down because of a dispute over funding of a wall to block Mexican immigrants from crossing over into the U.S.
Before they did, the House approved a short-term funding bill, but it did not win approval in the Senate. The Alabama vote split along party lines, with Democratic Rep. Terry Sewell the only Alabama voice against the bill that would have included funding for the wall.
Here’s how area members of Congress voted on major issues during the legislative week ending Dec. 21.
Budget Dispute Over Wall Funding
Voting 217 for and 185 against, the House on Dec. 20 sent the Senate a short-term government-funding bill (HR 695) that includes $5.7 billion requested by President Trump for construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats voted unanimously against the bill because of the wall expenditure. The bill wraps together seven fiscal 2019 appropriations bills totaling about $250 billion to fund agencies including the Department of Homeland Security between Dec. 22 and Feb. 8. Congress already has passed the other five basic appropriations bills for 2019, which total $845 billion and fund the departments of Defense, Education, Labor and Health and Human Services.
Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, said House members “have a choice to make. Are we going to stand with the president and say we are going to give you the tools to secure the border or not? It is a straight-up vote. You are either for border security or you are against border security.”
Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, said: “The president and the Republicans have two choices: perform the basic job of governing and keep the government open, or perform for Fox News. They have chosen the latter. It is an outrageous tantrum. This is not government for the people and by the people. It is government by tantrum and tweets.”
A yes vote was to send the bill to the Senate.
Voting yes: Bradley Byrne, R-1, Martha Roby, R-2,
Mike Rogers, R-3, Robert Aderholt, R-4, Mo Brooks,
R-5, Gary Palmer, R-6.
Voting no: Terri Sewell, D-7.
Criminal Justice and Prison Reforms
Voting 358 for and 36 against, the House on Dec. 20 joined the Senate in passing a bipartisan bill (S 756) that would revamp the federal prison system in an effort to improve the rehabilitation of inmates, lower rates of recidivism, impose more humane incarceration rules and scale back mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, including ones that impose lengthy terms on non-violent drug offenders.
The bill would require qualified prisoners to be assigned to prisons within 500 miles of home; virtually eliminate the solitary confinement of juveniles; write into law rules against shackling pregnant and post-partum inmates; expand the use of medications to treat opioid and heroin addiction; require dyslexia screening and treatment; expand prison industries to provide more jobs for inmates and set more compassionate release terms for elderly prisoners.
Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, said the bill addresses “grave concerns about our sentencing laws … . Although we must do far more to address the injustice of mandatory-minimum sentences and other policies that lead to mass incarceration, these changes recognize the fundamental unfairness of a system that imposes lengthy imprisonment that is not based on the circumstances of each offender in each case.”
Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said “some call it a jailbreak bill” that could result in the early release of certain sex criminals, bank robbers and offenders against law enforcement. “The National Sheriffs Association stands firmly opposed to this very dangerous bill. Crime rates will go up within two years if this bill passes, which apparently it will.”
A yes vote was to send the bill to President Trump for his expected signature.
Voting yes: Sewell
Voting no: Byrne, Roby, Rogers, Aderholt, Mo Brooks,
Year-End GOP Tax Package
Voting 220 for and 183 against, the House on Dec. 20 passed a Republican-drafted bill (HR 88) that would temporarily repeal certain Affordable Care Act taxes including a 2.3 percent levy on medical devices; provide one-time tax relief to victims of natural disasters this year in 14 states and territories; extend an array of credits and deductions for businesses, individuals and other beneficiaries; make organizational changes at the Internal Revenue Service and correct drafting errors in the Republicans’ 2017 tax-cut law. The bill would add between $50 billion and $100 billion to national debt because it is not paid for. In addition, the bill would scale back the so-called “Johnson rule,” which prevents religious and charitable organizations with tax-exempt status under Section 501 (c) of the tax code from supporting or opposing candidates for public office.
Tom Rice, R-South Carolina, said: This bill “adds to the amazing successes of the tax cuts and jobs act which became law last year, and our economic potential in America has once again been unleashed, and America is once again the land of opportunity.”
Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, said undercutting the Johnson rule “would allow priests, rabbis, imams and ministers to stand at the pulpit and offer an endorsement of a particular candidate for public office. What happened to (Thomas) Jefferson’s wall of separation?”
A yes vote was to send the bill to the Senate, where it was dead on arrival.
Voting yes: Byrne, Roby, Rogers Aderholt, Brooks and Palmer
Voting no: Sewell
Criminal Justice and Prison Reforms: Voting 87 for and 12 against, the Senate on Dec. 18 passed a bipartisan bill (S 756, above) that would add fairness to federal sentencing rules while improving rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, expanding early-release programs and making other changes to the operation of the 183,000-inmate federal prison system.
The bill does not directly affect the nation’s nearly two million state and local inmates. On the federal level, it would give judges more discretion to tailor sentences to the severity of the crime; reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for non-violent, low-level drug offenders; reduce mandatory sentences from life to 25 years for “three strike” drug felons and remove lingering disparities in sentences for crack-cocaine vs. powder-cocaine offenders.
To reduce recidivism, or relapse into crime, the bill would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to tailor a rehabilitation plan for each inmate in areas such as high school-equivalency education, vocational training, substance-abuse treatment, anger management and faith-based engagement. In return for sustained participation in such programs, qualified inmates could receive credits toward early release to halfway houses or home-custody.
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, said America “has over 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, even though we have less than 5 percent of the world’s population … . Our prisons should be more than just a warehouse for human beings. They should also serve as places where rehabilitation takes place (so) people can take advantage of the opportunity … to transform their own lives into productive citizens.”
John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said Congress has delegated too much sentencing authority to others. He called it wrong to give “our lawmaking authority to the bureaucracy to decide who gets to stay in prison and who gets to go home early. We make those decisions ourselves on the floor of the U.S. Senate, in front of God and country and the voters. We don’t hide behind a bureaucracy.”
A yes vote was to send the bill to the House.
Voting yes: Doug Jones, D
Voting no: Richard Shelby, R
KEY VOTES AHEAD
The House and Senate have scheduled no votes in the remaining days of the 115th Congress.