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Kennedy Takes Reins of Senate Labor Committee

November 17, 2006
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Vowing to make progress on what he calls issues that American families care about most, Sen. Edward Kennedy will lead efforts next year to raise the minimum wage, extend paid sick leave to every American worker and facilitate unionization.

Over a longer timeline, Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, will work on a broad health care measure that would expand Medicare to cover the uninsured.

In a meeting Thursday, November 16, with reporters on Capitol Hill, Kennedy outlined his agenda for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a panel that he will chair beginning in January thanks to the Democratic takeover of the Senate.

The top priority for Kennedy and the Democratic majority in the House is to increase the minimum wage. Kennedy is set to reintroduce a bill in January that would boost the rate to $7.25 from $5.15. With House Democrats putting the issue at the top of their "100 Hour" agenda, it's likely that legislation will move quickly.

Although raising the minimum wage has garnered some Republican support on Capitol Hill, it's unclear whether President Bush would sign such a measure.

Kennedy also is promoting the Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee workers seven paid sick days for their own illness or to tend to a family member. The law would apply to companies with 15 or more employees.

A measure that would make it easier for unions to organize a workplace likely will gain significant momentum in the Democratic Congress. Kennedy is advocating the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would compel the National Labor Relations Board to recognize a union if a majority of employees authorize collective bargaining by signing cards.

The bill is a high priority for labor, which asserts that the so-called card-check method to organize protects workers from employer intimidation. But corporate advocates argue that all union votes should be done by secret ballot because employees are subject to union intimidation under the card-check system.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and seven other business organizations sent a letter to Congress on November 16 criticizing card-check authorization, citing the fact that U.S. elections and congressional leadership votes are conducted by secret ballot.

"American workers should have this traditional, democratic protection when making decisions about their own work environment," they wrote.

The card-check bill garnered more than 215 co-sponsors in the House this year and is the subject of a grass-roots labor campaign. Kennedy says that the Employee Free Choice Act has "high approval ratings, almost as high as the minimum wage."

Another bill Kennedy is advocating, the Protecting America's Workers Act, would increase criminal penalties and fines for employers who willfully violate federal workplace safety rules.

Kennedy's most ambitious proposal in the committee's health portfolio is "Medicare for All." Under the plan, the Medicare program would be extended in phases to all Americans under 65.

The goal would be to provide insurance to the approximately 46 million who lack it. Participants would choose among dozens of health plans in a system modeled after the one used by federal employees.

Kennedy's office asserts that the plan would save $380 billion a year through better prevention and earlier treatment of disease and another $160 billion because of efficiency gains produced by improved health information technology.

A bill summary provided by Kennedy's staff calls the plan "the starting point for discussions on achieving universal coverage."

Critics are likely to balk at the costs. Kennedy did not indicate how the proposal would be funded, saying that his panel would have to work with the Senate Finance Committee.

But he ruled out increasing taxes on low-income people and the middle class. He says he would entertain hikes "for those who fall in the millionaire category."

One of the top education priorities for Kennedy is to increase funding for the No Child Left Behind Act, a bill passed by Congress four years ago designed to raise K-12 education standards. He also wants to increase the amount of money offered to college students in Pell Grants, cap student loan payments and cut their interest rates.

Kennedy's agenda addresses what he says are concerns voters expressed during the election about Washington ignoring their needs. "They want to know someone is on their side," he says.

--Mark Schoeff Jr.

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