WASHINGTON — Congress is set to approve the first major piece of legislation affecting Americans with disabilities in nearly 25 years with sweeping, bipartisan support.
"It's a good opportunity to show how we can work together," said Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., the lead House sponsor of the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act.
With 381 House sponsors and 74 Senate sponsors ranging on the ideological spectrum from conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the ABLE Act boasts 85% of Congress as a co-sponsor.
It's a distinction shared by no other major piece of legislation taken up by this Congress. The bill is the biggest piece of legislation to affect disabled Americans since the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
Supporters of the legislation say it will allow one of the most unproductive, polarized legislative sessions in modern history to end on a high note and will serve as a reminder that lawmakers are still capable of consensus.
The legislation creates new tax-exempt investment accounts for people born with disabilities to save for future covered expenses, such as education, transportation and maintaining a residence, among others.
The accounts are similar to 529 plans, which allow families to set aside money for a child's college investment fund. ABLE accounts would supplement coverage already provided to disabled Americans under Medicaid and other assistance programs.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is a co-sponsor, and her son Cole, 7, who was born with Down syndrome, would qualify for an ABLE account. "Cole has helped me understand how too many times federal policies limit — not expand — opportunities for those with disabilities," she said. "A vote on the ABLE Act brings us another step closer to empowering people with disabilities to reach their full potential."
McMorris Rodgers, a member of House GOP leadership, announced in November that the legislation would get a floor vote in December. Senate supporters, led by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., are confident that the Senate will take up the bill before the chamber adjourns, but it has not yet been put on the schedule for a vote.
Casey said that when he briefed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on ABLE accounts, Reid's immediate response was, "Why don't we do this?" Casey recalled. "People get it. It's an affirmation of people's ability to live as full a life as possible."
Supporters of the bill faced some hurdles getting it to the floor. An initial $20 billion cost estimate made some lawmakers hesitate, but negotiators ultimately revised the legislation to reduce the cost to $2 billion by clarifying beneficiaries must have been diagnosed with a disability by age 26, and that beneficiaries can only have one account.
Outside fiscal conservative groups still balked. The Heritage Foundation in early November declared the bill "a decisive step in expanding the welfare state" that would contribute to the complexity of the tax code instead of simplifying it.
Their opposition, which at times has been potent on fiscal legislation, is unlikely to derail the legislation, supporters said.
"We totally disregard that notion and we almost find it offensive," said Sara Weir of the National Down Syndrome Society. "It's allowing families and individuals to save their private funds that they raised. This isn't a handout from government or a new program, it's a hand up and it eliminates inequities that exist in the system right now."
The bill has also had some powerful, if untraditional, lobbyists behind it. Sara Wolff, 31, has Down syndrome and is a leading advocate for the ABLE Act and for people with disabilities. She testified before a Senate committee this year, and Casey's office said she was critical in signing up co-sponsors.
In an interview, Wolff recounted how she shared her personal story with lawmakers. After her mother passed away last year, she said it "kind of put life in perspective for me." She works at a law firm, volunteers and does national advocacy work but nagging concerns about her own future remain. "I worry about if my father passed away," she said. An ABLE account would allow her and her family to save for her future education and housing costs. Wolff, who has been lobbying for this since 2009, is ready for the vote.
"I'm going to have a big party," she said, "Not just because it affects me personally but for everyone out there to achieve their potential."