President Obama finally got the bipartisan deal he has been hunting for six years, as he pushed aside his progressive allies and organized labor and persuaded just enough Democrats in the House and Senate to pass the Fast-Track Trade Promotion Authority.

Obama got 28 House Democrats to join 190 Republicans in passing Fast Track on a 218-208 vote (6/18). Actually, they passed HR 2146, which amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow Federal law enforcement officers, firefighters, and air traffic controllers to make withdrawals from governmental pension plans after age 50, “and for other purposes,” including Fast Track for trade bills.

Voting against the bill in the House were 158 Democrats and 50 Republicans while 8 didn’t vote.

The 28 Democrats who voted in favor of Fast Track in the House included Reps. Terri Sewell (AL-07), Susan Davis (CA-53), Sam Farr (CA-20), Jim Costa (CA-16), Ami Bera (CA-07), Scott Peters (CA-52), Jared Polis (CO-02), James Himes (CT-04), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23), Mike Quigley (IL-05), John Delaney (MD-06), Brad Ashford (NE-02), Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Kathleen Rice (NY-04), Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), Kurt Schrader (OR-05), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), Jim Cooper (TN-05), Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15), Eddie Johnson (TX-30), Henry Cuellar (TX-28), Beto O’Rourke (TX-16), Gerald Connolly (VA-11), Donald Beyer (VA-08), Rick Larsen (WA-02), Suzan DelBene (WA-01), Derek Kilmer (WA-06) and Ron Kind (WI-03).

The Senate closed debate on HR 2146 with a 60-37 vote (6/24) and then finally passed the bill 60-38

. Voting with Obama and the multinational corporations for Fast Track were 13 Democratic senators: Michael Bennet (CO), Maria Cantwell (WA), Tom Carper (DE), Chris Coons (DE), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Bill Nelson (FL), Tim Kaine (VA), Claire McCaskill (MO), Patty Murray (WA), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Mark Warner (VA), Ron Wyden (OR). (Bennet, Murray and Wyden are up for re-election in 2016 — but Dems will need to keep those seats if they hope to regain the majority.)

Voting with 31 Dems and independent Sens. Angus King and Bernie Sanders against Fast Track were Susan Collins (ME), Ted Cruz (TX), Rand Paul (KY), Jeff Sessions (AL), Richard Shelby (AL). Not voting were Bob Corker (TN) and Mike Lee (UT). Bob Melendez (NJ) missed the cloture vote but voted against final passage.

MapLight, an organization that tracks money’s influence on politics, noted that industries supporting the Fast-Track bill have given nine times more money ($218.4 mln) to senators than industries opposing the bill ($23.2 mln).

Top 10 recipients of contributions from industries supporting and opposing HR 2146 were Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who got $8.2 mln from supporters and $11,000 from opponents; Kirsten Gellibrand (D-NY), who got $6.28 mln from supporters and $1.35 mln from opponents; Rob Portman (R-OH), who got $6 mln from supporters and $22,900 from opponents; Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who got $5.9 mln from supporters and $180,675 from opponents; John Cornyn (R-TX), $4.6 mln from supporters and $0 from opponents; Roy Blunt (R-MO), $4.47 mln from supporters and $16,150 from opponents; Patrick Toomey (R-PA), $4.45 mln from supporters and $22,550 from opponents; Harry Reid (D-NV), $4.25 mln from supporters and $328,159 from opponents; Mark Warner (D-VA), $4.1 mln from supporters and $135,400 from opponents; and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), $3.9 mln from supporters and $11,000 from opponents. To be fair, Gillibrant, Schumer and Reid took the big money and voted against it.

Joe Firestone noted at NewEconomicPerspectives.org (6/24) that with Trade Promotion Authority in place, which takes away the filibuster and the ability to amend, it will be extremely difficult to block passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration is negotiating with 11 other Pacific Rim nations, and other trade bills in the Senate. Among the 54 Republicans, Sens. Sessions, Shelby, Collins, Paul, Lee, and Cruz seem to be no votes on the TPP, he noted, while 48 Republicans seem committed to it. Dems appear to have 33 no votes, while 13 are for it. “If the Republican opposition doesn’t increase in number, then 12 of the 13 Democratic ‘yes’ votes would have to change to ‘no’ votes to defeat it. So, without help from a number of additional Republicans, it will be very difficult to get enough Democrats to shift to defeat the TPP in the Senate, Firestone noted

. “Defeating it in the House may be easier, however. Since the House is much more subject to short-term political currents including pressure from a movement than is the Senate,” he wrote.

It would take development of a ferocious movement in opposition to trade deals to motivate enough additional Democrats and Republicans to shift that many votes in the Senate, while in the House such a movement would make it much easier than it is now to shift the 15 votes or so that would probably bring a victory there, he noted. “And if there is any hope of doing that, it will lie in the impact of public disclosure of the TPP agreement, which will occur when the TPP is introduced in Congress, and also in the extent to which the opposition movement can educate people about the TPP and its likely consequences in enough numbers to fuel enough of a negative reaction to get people in both Houses to change their votes.”

“When the inexcusable and anti-democratic veil of secrecy surrounding the TPP is finally lifted and the American people see what is actually in the agreement, they are going to force their representatives in Washington to vote that deal down,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a critic of Obama’s trade agenda. See Tradewatch.org.

NEW OT RULES WOULD GIVE 5M WORKERS A RAISE. Continuing his effort to do by regulation what Congress refused to enact by law, President Obama is taking steps to give 5 mln Americans workers a raise by more than doubling the salaries under which workers must be paid overtime.

Hourly workers are supposed to get time-and-a-half for hours over 40 per week, but many bosses simply classify them as salaried workers and work them like rented mules. Under the current rules, “salaried workers” who make more than $23,660 a year don’t qualify for overtime. In 1975, 62% of salaried workers earned beneath the threshold, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but today it only protects 8% of salaried workers, David Moberg noted at InTheseTimes.com.

The Department of Labor (6/30) began taking steps to increase that threshold to $50,440 a year, or approximately the same level as 1975. This should provide overtime protection to about 44% of salaried workers, the AFL-CIO noted. Others have proposed a level of $69,000 per year to protect the same percentage of salaried workers as were protected in 1975.

Businesses may respond by paying time-and-a-half to their employers when they work more than 40 hours a week. Others may avoid paying overtime by reducing hours for their full-time employees and “spreading the work.” These businesses can “spread the work” either by hiring new employees or by assigning more hours to their part-time employees, the AFL-CIO noted. Also, firms with employees earning just below the threshold may bump up their salaries to just above the threshold to avoid having to pay them overtime.

The Labor Department has the authority to update overtime rules, the AFL-CIO noted, as the Supreme Court has ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act grants the secretary of labor broad authority to “define and delimit”—through regulation—the statutory exemptions form overtime eligibility. From the time the FLSA was enacted in 1938 until 1975, the Labor Department revised overtime eligibility rules routinely and increased the overtime salary threshold six times.

Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project, a pro-worker research and advocacy group, also wants the new rules to more adequately define the kind of work that qualifies for the white collar exemption. At this point, the Labor Department has not proposed such revisions in defining who is a manager or professional, Moberg noted.

The Labor Department will take public comments on the proposed rule for 60 days, after which it is expected to issue a final rule.

COMING UP: REVENGE OF THE COURT’S CONS. Liberals were feeling pretty good about the just-completed Supreme Court term, Ian Millhiser noted at ThinkProgress.org (7/6). Marriage discrimination is dead, and Obamacare is alive. America’s civil rights laws were left largely intact, and state election laws were not cast into turmoil

. Many of those outcomes most likely stem from conservative overreach as litigants brought longshot cases because they were encouraged by the Roberts Court’s record of conservatism and decided to “press their luck.” In any event, it is unlikely that liberals will feel the same way about the next Supreme Court term as they do about this recently completed one. Based on two major cases that the Court has already agreed to hear, and a third that is likely to be added to the Court’s docket this fall, next term is shaping up to be a much more conventional term rife with longtime conservative boogie men waiting to be slain by the Court’s right flank.

Abortion: Although the justices have not yet agreed to hear a major abortion case next Supreme Court term, it is likely that they will hear at least one of two cases involving sham health laws that conservative states have enacted in an attempt to get around what remains of the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. States such as Texas and Mississippi enacted laws that, at a superficial level, appear to be designed to make abortion clinics safer and to ensure that physicians who perform abortions are well-credentialed. In reality, however, these laws do little to advance women’s health, while simultaneously subjecting clinics to regulatory burdens that will force many of them to close down. At the moment, the only thing keeping multiple Texas abortion clinics open is a temporary stay issued by a 5-4 Supreme Court preventing that state’s law from going into full effect.

The Court will likely announce whether they will hear a challenge to these sham health laws in the fall. If they choose not to hear the Texas case, that could cause almost as much damage to the right to choose in Texas as an adverse Supreme Court decision, as it will allow a lower court decision cutting deeply into reproductive freedom to take effect. Should the justices agree to take this case, which seems likely, the fact that Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed to grant a temporary stay halting the law is a positive sign for advocates of abortion rights.

Nevertheless, Millhiser wrote, no one in the choice community should count on Kennedy’s vote. Prior to the Texas law reaching the Court, Kennedy voted on 21 abortion restrictions and allowed all but one of them to go into effect.

Affirmative Action: Two years ago, the Supreme Court gave affirmative action an unexpected stay of execution. Though Court-watchers largely expected the Supreme Court to end race-conscious university admissions programs in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court voted instead to send the case back down to a lower court for reconsideration.

A year later, the conservative US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans upheld the University of Texas’s affirmative action program once again. Then, on 6/29, the Supreme Court announced that they would hear this case for a second time.

Justice Kennedy has demonstrated that there is some distance between himself and the Court’s four other conservatives, who hold much more absolutist views on race. At the end of this recently concluded term, he voted with the Court’s liberals to preserve a key prong of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits race discrimination in housing. Nevertheless, there are several signs that he is unlikely to break with the Court’s conservative bloc in Fisher‘s second trip to the justices.

According to one judge, “it would be difficult for UT to construct an admissions policy that more closely resembles the policy approved by the Supreme Court” in 2003 then the aspect of Texas’s policy that is now being considered by the Supreme Court. Yet Kennedy dissented in that 2003 case — a strong sign that he’s already decided that the Texas admissions policy is unconstitutional. Indeed, at oral arguments in Fisher I, Kennedy accused Texas of creating an admissions program where “race counts above all.” That’s very bad news for defenders of affirmative action.

Unions: The Court also announced in late June that it will hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that will send many public sector unions’ finances into turmoil if its plaintiffs prevail before the justices.

The core question in Friedrichs is whether non-members of a union can be required to compensate the union for the costs of bargaining on their behalf. Under longstanding law, unions are required to bargain on behalf of all workers in a unionized shop, regardless of whether those workers elect to join the union. Thus, members and non-members alike share in the higher wages and increased benefits that typically come along with unionization.

To prevent a free-rider problem, where workers elect not to join the union because they know that they will benefit regardless of whether they pay their share of the union’s bargaining costs, current law allows unions to charge what are known as “fair share” fees or “agency fees,” which cover each non-member’s share of the cost of bargaining on their behalf. Without these fees, public sector unions may struggle to raise the funds that they need in order to operate, and all workers in many unionized workplaces could eventually lose the benefits of unionization.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in Harris v. Quinn to limit unions’ ability to some workers these fees in 2014. That’s an ominous sign for public sector unions who have a stake in Friedrichs.

NEW RULES HELP PEANUT WORKERS UNIONIZE. New rules implemented by the National Labor Relations Board in April allowed an expedited union election process that helped peanut workers in May vote overwhelmingly to become members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 42 (Atlanta).

Workers were regularly subjected to harassment, favoritism, prejudice and unfair work rules from management at the Golden Peanut plant in Headland, Ala., the AFL-CIO Now blog reported (6/29).

The facility, owned by Archer Daniels Midland, is a shelling plant for runner peanuts, as well as a hull and fiber processing plant. Workers at the plant work in production, maintenance, quality control and shipping departments.

This was the BCTGM’s first union election under the new NLRB rules, which set forth an accelerated election process, speeding up the time between the filing of a representation petition and the union election.

As soon as the organizers determined they had a majority on board, BCTGM International Rep. David Woods, who led the workers’ efforts to organize, filed for the election on 4/29, and it was scheduled for 20 days later. “The company wanted a later election date to wear workers out,” he said. “The company wasn’t successful and the union’s request was granted and the election was set.” The anti-union campaign intensified in those 20 days before the workers voted, Woods said, “but [workers] were well prepared for the company’s tactics, and they had the courage to stand up and take them on. They stood strong together—even when they knew it may cost them their jobs. They wanted change so badly that they risked it all.”

OBAMA TO HELP LOW-INCOME RESIDENTS GET SOLAR POWER. The Obama administration announced an initiative to help low- and middle-income Americans gain access to solar energy in response climate change, the New York Times reported (7/7). The administration said it intends to install 300 megawatts of solar and other renewable energy systems, tripling the renewable energy in federally subsidized housing by 2020. It also would make it easier for homeowners to borrow money for solar improvements and start a nationwide program to help renters gain access to solar energy.

Also unveiled were commitments totaling more than $520 mln from charities, investors, states and cities to pay for solar and energy-efficiency projects for lower-income communities.

The same day, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation aimed at making it easier to low-income families to take advantage of solar power. The bill would provide $200 mln in loans and grants to offset the upfront costs associated with installing solar panels on community facilities, public housing and low-income family homes, ThinkProgress reported (7/7).

WARREN BACKERS SWING TO BERNIE. Bernie Sanders has been seeing a groundswell of support in his insurgent progressive campaign for president. His campaign raised $15 mln in the first two months and a grassroots group that had organized to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the race for the Democratic nomination has transformed into a new organization and endorsed the Sanders’ campaign, John Nichols reported at TheNation.com (6/19).

“Inspired by Elizabeth Warren’s message that we need to fight—and fight hard—to win the progress we want to see, Ready to Fight is a grassroots group that’s standing with Warren in the fights she’s leading, and backing Bernie Sanders for president in 2016,” declares readytofight.org, a website launched by organizers of the Ready for Warren campaign that had been one of several efforts to draft the senator from Massachusetts.

Ready to Fight will advocate broadly for an economic populist agenda that mirrors the messages of Warren with regard to taking on the big banks and addressing income inequality, wage stagnation, and a host of other issues, Nichols noted. Warren has said that she will not seek the nomination, and she has not made a formal endorsement in the race for the Democratic nomination. Many of her backers (including several key players associated with the separate Run Warren Run initiative) are still exploring their options in a race that also includes front-runner Hillary Clinton, as well as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.

But Sanders has surged since announcing his candidacy, drawing large crowds in key states and moving to within 10 points of Clinton in a recent poll of likely voters in the first-primary state of New Hampshire. And in an opinion piece published by CNN (6/19), Ready for Warren campaign manager Erica Sagrans and Charles Lenchner, a co-founder of Ready for Warren and the director of Organizing 2.0, wrote:

“We believe the movement to draft Warren fundamentally changed the terms of the 2016 debate, and these days, just about every Democrat running for president seems to sound a lot like Warren. Few people have ever played as large a role in a Democratic presidential primary without even entering the race.

“But having demonstrated how much support Elizabeth Warren has, we’ve spent the past few weeks listening to our grassroots supporters and the progressive community about what they want to do next. And one thing we heard time and again is that they’re ready to play a big role in 2016, fighting alongside Warren on issues like trade, student debt, and reining in Wall Street.

“They are also ready to back ‘Warren Wing’ candidates who embody Warren’s fearless brand of progressive populism. And although it isn’t just about the presidency, 56% of supporters have urged us to back Bernie Sanders as the candidate currently running for president who best embodies the values that Warren champions.

STEIN TO RUN AGAIN AS GREEN. Jill Stein tossed her Green Party hat into the presidential race (6/22) during an appearance on Democracy Now!, Joel Bleifuss noted at InTheseTimes.com (7/7). Stein, who got 469,501 votes, 0.36% of the total, in 2012, admitted that she and Sanders share a similar vision, but explained that when she loses on 11/8/16, “that vision will not die, it will not be absorbed back into a party that is essentially hostile to that vision.” Bleifuss added, “This begs the question: What has the Green Party and its ‘vision’ accomplished in the 15 years since Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign? “The Green Party and its supporters count talented writers and activists within their ranks (some of whom contribute to [In These Times]), but their theory of national electoral politics is as defective as their understanding of the long and discouraging history of third-party campaigns. The Green Party motto appears to be: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, keep doing exactly the same thing.’” John Nichols noted at TheNation.com (6/24) that Stein is joining other alternative party contenders who have been excluded from debates sponsored by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates in a legal challenge to the bipartisan debates. Filed by the group Our American Initiative, the lawsuit seeks to open up the 2016 debates to alternative candidates and alternative views.

RUBIO REBUKES TRUMP’S MEXICAN BASHING; CRUZ ‘NOT INTERESTED.' It took more than two weeks after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed that Mexico was sending criminals, drug dealers and rapists to the US before Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) released a statement rebuking his rival. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said in his campaign announcement (6/16). “They’re sending people that have lots of problems… they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Sixteen days later, after GOP rivals George Pataki urged fellow candidates to come out against Trump’s incendiary remarks, and Rick Perry also disapproved of Trump’s statements, saying it was a “huge error” to make such a sweeping, derogatory generalization, Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Cuba, issued a statement: “Trump’s comments are not just offensive and inaccurate, but also divisive. Our next president needs to be someone who brings Americans together – not someone who continues to divide. Our broken immigration system is something that needs to be solved, and comments like this move us further from – not closer to – a solution. We need leaders who offer serious solutions to secure our border and fix our broken immigration system,” Mediate.com noted (7/3). That was further than Ted Cruz was willing to go. Canada-born Cruz, whose father also emigrated from Cuba, declined to criticize Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants. “I like Donald Trump,” the Texas senator said on Meet the Press (7/5). “He’s bold, he’s brash. And I get it that it seems the favorite sport of the Washington media is to encourage some Republicans to attack other Republicans. I’m not going to do it. I’m not interested in Republican-on-Republican violence.”

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2015


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