New Senate Could Bode Well for Women's Issues

In a round-table discussion with Women's Enews, top aides of two powerful Democratic senators shared their pro-woman legislative wish list. And, Republican Snowe calls on her colleagues to moderate their views and pass women-friendly legislation.

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME)

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-The sudden ascension of Democrats to the leadership of the United States Senate for the first time since 1995 will inject new life into issues of particular concern to women, said senior level Democratic aides in a roundtable discussion with Women's Enews last week.

Health policy, child care, judicial appointments, immigration, labor protection, anti-discrimination proposals and bankruptcy assistance will receive energetic attention, the Democratic aides predict-all for the good for most women.

While understandably these Democratic insiders cast themselves as strong advocates for issues affecting a wide range of women's issues, a leading Republican appears to agree that the shift in power will result in a more moderate and more woman-friendly agenda inside the Beltway.

In a written statement, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine said that the change in Senate leadership “should be a wake-up call for our party's leaders that the voices of moderate Republicans must be welcomed and respected.”

Sen. Snowe, a pro-choice Republican leader, also said that she remains committed to working in a bipartisan manner on issues of importance to women, citing inclusion in the recent tax relief package of the Snowe-Lincoln provision, which makes the child tax credit refundable. Sen. Snowe said she worked with Democratic Senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas on seeing the credit included in the recent tax legislation.

“Certainly, there are many remaining priorities of particular importance to women: assuring fair treatment and representation of women in clinical drug trials; continuing to join the battle against breast cancer and other illnesses that predominantly affect women; fighting for greater equity by requiring insurers who cover prescription drugs to also cover prescription contraceptives and devices,” Snowe's statement said.

Daschle Will Now Decide Which Issues Gain Attention

The reversal of fortune for the Republicans, a result of the historic defection of Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont from the Republican Party to Independent, may have its greatest impact in legislative processes rarely visible to the public.

The Senate majority leader, who is now South Dakota Democrat Thomas Daschle, decides which pieces of legislation will proceed to the floor for a vote. The public may never even know of the existence of certain initiatives that the majority leader lets die in committee. Conversely, power over the agenda allows the leader to prioritize issues he believes deserve a hearing on the Senate floor.

A prime example: The Hate Crimes bill had first been introduced as an amendment to last year's Defense Authorization bill because supporters believed it was the only way to move it through the Republican-controlled process.

“In the final negotiations with the White House, the Republican leadership insisted that the Hate Crimes amendment be stripped and refused to let it be a part of any final decision on appropriations,” said Melody Barnes, chief judiciary counsel to Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

With Sen. Daschle in place as Majority Leader, Hate Crimes legislation has been introduced with 51 co-sponsors, including Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania.

This stand-alone version of the bill includes protection for those who suffer discrimination because of gender, sexual orientation and disability, in addition to those already protected based on race, religion and national origin. The bill also allows broader discretion for the federal government to enter a discrimination case brought in state courts.

Barnes predicts that Republicans may hesitate to use a filibuster-deliberate extended debate-to forestall a vote, because of public perception.

“Do they really want to be seen back home filibustering a Hate Crimes bill, particularly when there is clear Republican support?” she asked.

Judicial Nominees May Be More Moderate Than Those First Proposed

The group said that the shift in leadership would affect the judicial appointment process as to the types of nominees who are confirmed. They said a Democratic leadership will help insure that all vacancies are not filled by conservative judges.

“I feel like we've been pulled out of the fire,” said Barnes. Close to 100 judicial seats at the lower and appellate levels were open and due to be filled, she said-an extremely long vacancy list that she attributed to Republican's “concerted program of delay.”

According to other staffers, women and minority judicial nominees were given increased scrutiny by the Republican-controlled Senate.

“And, if you litigated on behalf of choice or labor, simply trying to defend the law of the land, this was a no-no and you wouldn't get confirmed,” added one.

The tables may not have turned 180 degrees, but the staffers believe the new Senate may result in judicial nominees who are more moderate than the first Bush picks, some of whom were strongly anti-choice and anti-civil rights, including one who opposed the American with Disabilities Act.

Work-Family Balance, Immigration, Bankruptcy-All on the List

Serious attention also will be devoted to labor-related issues, including an “enormous agenda on work-family balance,” said a senior Senate Labor Committee staffer. The leadership shift will permit new attention to minimum wage, pensions and benefits, genetic discrimination and unemployment laws to be brought to Democratic-led committees for discussion-all issues that heavily impact women.

Also on the Democratic wish list are changes in bankruptcy laws to protect vulnerable women.

“We know that there are two major life events that are most likely to cause personal bankruptcy-divorce and a health care crisis,” said a Finance Committee staffer. “Women are the most adversely impacted by both, so we are prioritizing work on fair bankruptcy laws.”

Concerns commonly faced by immigrant women will move up on the priority list, as well, said Esther Olavarria, Sen. Kennedy's chief immigration counsel.

Current law requires some immigrants seeking to stay in the U.S. and who are family members of U.S. citizens or legal residents to return to their country of origin and apply there for permission to live and work in the U.S. The wait often can be measured in years. This provision has caused the forced separation of many immigrant mothers from their U.S.-born children. Last year, the Violence Against Women Act included a section that permitted victims of family violence to stay in the U.S. while seeking a visa. Now, the Senate may expand that to include all qualified applicants, said Olavarria.

Democrats have also targeted work on health care, including expanding prescription drug coverage, and health insurance for children of uninsured parents, and the so-called “Patients' Bill of Rights,” which would include a provision allowing women to visit a gynecologist without first requiring a referral from a primary care physician.

Interviewed just 10 days after their party gained control of the Senate, the Democrats were full of ambitious plans for what they could accomplish for most women. However, even in the first flush of victory, they admit that the story of power and influence may not yet be over. They too are concerned about further changes in the balance of the Senate. Among those most vulnerable at the moment is Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, under scrutiny for his relationship with campaign contributors. Should Torricelli leave the Senate in mid-term, New Jersey's acting governor, Republican Donald DiFrancesco will be able to appoint his successor-meaning a possible shift back to a Republican majority.

For now, excitement and enthusiasm among Democrats is running high. “There has been a dramatic change,” Barnes said.

Ann Moline is a free-lance writer in Washington.

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U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe:

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