by Kim Anderson
The New Year on Capitol Hill began with the Senate’s overwhelmingly bipartisan support (89-8) of the fiscal deal negotiated in large part by Vice President Biden, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Vice President Biden briefed the Democratic members of the Senate late in the evening on New Year’s Eve. In a letter to Members of the Senate, NEA argued:
It is long past time to put people ahead of politics. Congress must step up and do the right thing to help middle class families before it is too late…We are very pleased that the deal would generate significant revenue by asking the wealthiest individuals to pay their fair share.
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At approximately 2am on New Year’s Day, the Senate approved by a vote of 89-8 a bill that makes no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, and will:
- Provide $620 billion in revenue over the next ten years (the first vote to raise new revenue in 20 years);
- Permanently extend middle class tax cuts for 114 million households;
- Permanently raise tax rates for individuals making over $400,000 per year and for those married couples making over $450,000 per year;
- Permanently extend a number of tax benefits to help families and student pay for college, such as the student loan interest deduction, the tax exclusion on employer-provided educational assistance, and extend for five years the Earned Income Tax Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit;
- Extend for 2012 and 2013 the $250 tax deduction for educators who spend money out of their own pockets to pay for school supplies (educators spend over $400 on average per year on school supplies for students);
- Extend for 2 more years school construction bonds equal to $400 million per year in bond volume;
- Extend unemployment insurance for a year for 2 million struggling Americans;
- Extend the farm bill for another year, averting massive increases in milk prices; and
- Expire the payroll tax holiday that Americans had been enjoying for the last two years.
This bill averts the draconian across the board cuts (“sequestration”) to education that would have kicked in had Congress not taken action. However, for public education advocates, this reprieve will only last for two months, setting up another major clash between the President and the GOP Leadership in both the House and Senate about spending cuts and whether or not to raise the debt ceiling in order to keep the country from defaulting on its obligations. NEA’s Government Relations Director Mary Kusler warned:
We are very disappointed that the deal delays the impending across the board cuts, rather than eliminating them completely. We strongly urge Congress to reassess this issue in early 2013…These cuts, even if delayed, will mean fewer educators, students crammed into already overcrowded classrooms, shorter school weeks, 4-year-olds cheated out of early childhood education, and dreams dashed for aspiring college students.
Members of the House of Representatives then convened in their caucuses to discuss the contents of the Senate-passed bill. Finally, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor emerged in the late afternoon on New Year’s Day to tell the press that members of the Republican caucus were opposed to the deal and were planning to amend the Senate-passed package by insisting on additional spending cuts beyond the $1.2 trillion already made in the last debt ceiling crisis. But within a few more hours, it became clear there were insufficient votes in the GOP Caucus to pass such an amendment. Shortly after 11pm, the House finally passed the Senate’s fiscal cliff legislation by a vote of 257-167.
The fiscal cliff negotiations of 2012 will therefore usher in Round Two of contentious budget battles, but this time with the new 113th Congress. There will be enormous pressure on lawmakers to find a way to dig the country out of long-term deficits, something that threatens not only the country’s future prosperity, but also threatens the stability of world financial markets. Education advocates will yet again be called upon to raise their voices and explain the impact on our nation’s students if lawmakers make further cuts in education and other critical services, explaining that education spending (which accounts for only 2 percent of the federal budget) is not to blame for the country’s deficit.
In a statement issued just after the House vote, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said, “While we applaud the progress that has been made, we strongly encourage Congress to finish the job and protect Americans from across the board cuts facing the nation in February.”