CHN: House Reauthorizes Workforce Investment Act

Democrats’ Concerns Cannot Stop Final Passage
On Thursday, May 9, the House passed the Workforce Reinvestment and Adult Education Act of 2003 (HR 1261) despite serious concerns of Democrats about provisions in the bill that remove civil rights protections and its inattention to the rising numbers of unemployed workers in America. HR 1261 reauthorizes the nation’s primary job-training program, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which initially passed Congress in 1998. The House voted 220 – 204 on final passage, with seven Democrats voting for the measure and ten Republicans voting against it.

One of the most contentious aspects of the bill is a provision allowing faith-based organizations to receive federal funds under WIA despite employing hiring practices based on religious preference. This idea was specifically outlawed in the original WIA bill, but is supported by current House Republicans and has been a central theme of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative. Democrats are vehemently opposed to the provision and accused Republicans of undermining an almost forty-year old civil rights protection against religious discrimination. Democratic amendments addressing the faith-based provision were barred from consideration by a party line vote of 221 – 196.

Another main objection to HR 1261 raised by Democrats is that it ignores the current plight of laid-off workers, whose federal unemployment benefits will expire on May 31 if Congress does not act. During floor debate on the bill, Democrats emphasized that Republicans have not done enough to help laid-off workers, especially the long-term unemployed. Representative Dale Kildee (D-MI) offered an amendment during committee debate over the bill to extend unemployment insurance for 26 weeks, but GOP leaders did not allow that amendment to come to the House floor.

There were eight amendments adopted before the vote on final passage. Most notable among them was an amendment by Representative John Lewis (D-GA) to raise the eligibility age to twenty-four for programs that target services to out of school youth. Another amendment, offered by Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA), would clarify the definition of those eligible for services under WIA to include single parents, displaced homemakers, and pregnant single women. Both amendments passed by voice vote.

The Senate has yet to take action on WIA reauthorization. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee does not currently have a draft bill and is unlikely to begin work on reauthorization in the near future. But it is almost assured that the faith-based component of the House bill will face more stringent

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