U.S. Rep. Bill Owens says he's disappointed that an effort to expand background checks for gun buyers was voted down in the Senate.
Meanwhile, the Democrat from Plattsburgh speculated that House leadership is delaying a vote on a broadly supported repeal of the medical device tax contained in the Affordable Care Act to use the measure as a bargaining chip in the next round of debt ceiling negotiations. Owens acknowledged that his speculation is based on "rumors" in Washington.
Owens also applauded the Senate for introducing a proposal that could help farmers find more foreign workers.
The Senate failed to pass a number of gun control measures last week, including legislation to expand background checks for buyers and a bill that would ban assault weapons. Each measure required 60 votes to pass; the background check bill failed 54-46, while the assault weapon ban garnered only 40 votes.
Owens has opposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, but he is a fervent supporter of more detailed and thorough checks on gun buyers.
"Clearly, in my view, the Senate should have passed the bill, and it should have come over to the House so that we could review it and decide what action we wanted to take on it," Owens said.
There was a chance that House Republican leaders would have reviewed a bill if the Senate passed one, Owens said. But with no action from the Senate, he said he'd be surprised if the House takes any action at all on gun control.
"I think (House Speaker John) Boehner has made it pretty clear that he would have at least given serious consideration to bringing any bill that was passed by the Senate to the House floor, at least with regards to background checks and gun running," Owens said. "So that's why I'm disappointed that the Senate did not pass it and didn't give us a chance to explore the legislation, debate it and have a good discussion about it."
Medical device tax
Last year, the House voted 270-146 to repeal a 2.3 percent excise tax on products like cotton swabs and CT scan machines. The tax was included in 2010's Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare.
But the repeal was never signed into law. Owens said a new effort to repeal the medical device tax is under way, and this year's legislation has more than 218 co-sponsors. He said he learned last week that the repeal is "being held hostage for debt ceiling negotiations by the Republican leadership."
In the 2012 election, Republicans hammered Owens for supporting Obamacare, including the device tax. At the urging of a medical device manufacturer in Clinton County, Owens went on to call for repeal of the tax, which was intended to help pay for expanded health coverage.
Republican opponents, including Watertown businessman Matt Doheny, continued to criticize Owens despite his call for repeal, saying he should never have voted for it in the first place. Now, it's Republicans who are preventing the repeal from going forward, Owens said.
Owens said there are more than enough votes to pass the repeal.
"What Republicans are doing is saying, 'This is something we want, but we want to use it as a negotiating tool in the debt ceiling debate,'" he said. "At least those are the rumors. The only fact that I can tell you is they refuse to bring it to the floor for a vote."
Meanwhile, Owens said lawmakers haven't put forth any proposals to end the spending cuts known as sequestration, which has resulted in worker furloughs at federal agencies.
"I don't see anything through the end of fiscal year 2013 that will change sequester," he said. "Obviously, I'm always hopeful that they'll come up with a big deal that will remove the sequester. But if we do remove sequester, we're still going to have cuts. The question is: Can we do it in a more equitable way so that we're all sharing the pain?"
Help for farmers
Owens had high praise for a measure contained in the Senate's sweeping immigration reform package that would create a new guest worker program.
The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, currently being debated in the Senate, contains a farm labor provision that Owens said would help farmers find more immigrant labor.
"For the first time we have a piece of legislation that would deal with the two issues that we have had trouble with for probably 30 years," Owens said. "The first is the individuals who work primarily on dairy farms. There are provisions that would allow them to obtain legal status.
"I think it's a very important move forward and that we would see that our dairy farmers would get the kind of (agriculture) workers that they need and would allow those people that are here to effectively become legal - not citizens, but become eligible to work here in the United States."
The measure would also replace the current H-2A program with new visa programs, Owens said, that would streamline the process for hiring guest workers at places like apple orchards.
"The idea is to move it out of (the Department of Labor) because U.S. DOL has not handled that program very well for years," he said. "This is going to, I think, improve and meet the needs of dairy farmers, orchardists and (agriculture) in general throughout the district."
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings last week, Owens said many lawmakers thought the U.S. had moved past such acts of terrorism.
"It's simply very disturbing, and it means we all have to be continuously vigilant as we walk through public places," he said. "For the families who lost people, for those people who were injured and maimed, all I can say is my thoughts and prayers are with them. We hope that something like this does not happen again."