Update From Washington, D.C.
Senate Negotiators Inch Closer to Infrastructure Deal, Senate Unanimously Approves VOCA Fix Act; Clears Way for President’s Signature, and Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Immigration Hearing
July 22, 2021
Senate Negotiators Inch Closer to Infrastructure Deal
Following weeks of negotiations, a bipartisan group of 22 senators this week inched closer to a $579 billion infrastructure deal. The expectation is that final bill text and an official budget assessment will be available earlier next week, allowing the chamber to begin consideration ahead of the planned August recess. It should be noted that GOP lawmakers on July 21 blocked an attempt by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to start debate on the bill, arguing that they needed to see the final details of the measure before agreeing to move forward. Incidentally, Schumer’s decision to force the early test vote may have put the necessary pressure on negotiators to forge an agreement.
While the details of the proposal have not yet been released, the package will include an infusion of federal support for traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges, as well as funding for other critical program areas, including water infrastructure, energy grid improvements, and broadband expansion.
Looking ahead, any negotiated package is still expected to face significant hurdles. In the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to advance the bill, the deal may not go far enough for every member of the Democratic caucus. Similarly, progressives in the House are concerned that the funding levels in the Senate framework are insufficient. They also want assurances that a separate $3.5 trillion budget initiative – which would allow Democrats to advance the rest of President Biden’s economic agenda outlined in the American Families Plan – will move forward in the Senate. At the same time, there are a number of GOP lawmakers who believe the infrastructure bill is too expensive.
Senate Unanimously Approves VOCA Fix Act; Clears Way for President’s Signature
On July 20, the Senate unanimously approved CSAC-supported legislation known as the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act (VOCA Fix Act). The bill (HR 1652/S 611), which the House cleared on a bipartisan vote earlier this year, will be signed into law by President Biden in the coming days.
The legislation boosts the amount of funding available for Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grants by redirecting criminal settlements from Federal non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements into the Crime Victims Fund (CVF). The new funding mechanism is expected to result in the deposit of an additional $4 to $7 billion into the CVF over the course of the next several years. VOCA funds can be used to support a variety of victim assistance programs, including domestic violence shelters, child abuse treatment programs, elder fraud and abuse services, rape crisis centers, and legal services.
Additionally, the VOCA Fix Act will increase the percentage that state compensation programs are reimbursed by the Federal government – from 60 to 75 percent – and will allow states to apply for a no-cost extension for VOCA assistance grants. The legislation also will give states the authority to waive subgrantee match requirements for VOCA assistance grants.
Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Immigration Hearing
Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled “Immigrant Farmworkers are Essential to Feeding America.” According to committee leaders, the intent of the hearing was to highlight the contributions of immigrants to the nation’s food supply and to set the stage for the Senate to take up legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented agricultural workers.
The bill in question, known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, has been endorsed by CSAC and was approved earlier this year by the House. Among other things, the measure (HR 1603) would establish a first-of-its-kind, merit-based visa program for the nation’s agricultural sector.
Pursuant to the legislation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be authorized to grant temporary “certified agricultural worker” (CAW) status to undocumented individuals who, in turn, would be eligible to earn permanent legal status for themselves and their dependent family members through continued agricultural employment. The legislation also would make reforms to the H-2A agricultural guest worker visa program, including allowing a limited number of program participants to engage in year-round work. In addition, HR 1603 would require DHS to establish a nationwide system for employers to verify an individual’s identity and employment authorization (known as E-Verify). Employers hiring individuals for agricultural employment would be required to use the new system.
Looking ahead, immigrant rights groups and other stakeholders are pushing Congress to include the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, as well as other House-passed immigration bills, as part of the Senate’s budget reconciliation measure. As of this writing, it is unclear whether the Senate parliamentarian would rule that immigration-related legislation is allowed under the budget reconciliation process.