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Members Offer Rare Display of Emotion With ABLE Act

Passing the ABLE Act represents a legislative highpoint for Crenshaw. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

There are many votes members of Congress cast that mean absolutely nothing. Procedural motions. Uncontroversial bills and amendments that are forgotten as soon as they are voted on.  

Then there are other votes — those constituents may never notice but that are, for some lawmakers, unforgettable.  

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill, 404-17, that would establish tax-exempt savings accounts for individuals with disabilities. The bill, which is expected to pass in the Senate, exempts savings, up to certain levels, and distributions from those savings for individuals and families applying for means-tested federal programs.  

Currently, people with disabilities can lose access to federal programs such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income once they establish a certain level of savings.  

For those eligible, the so-called Achieving a Better Life Experience Act could mean a more independent life, making it easier to prepare for future financial needs. For certain members of Congress, the bill means actually doing something.  

For the bill's sponsor, Florida Republican Ander Crenshaw, the measure is an emotional victory.  

"It just means a lot," Crenshaw told CQ Roll Call Tuesday, choking back tears. "Helpin' a lot of people."  

"I just see their faces and it just ..." he said, trailing off.  

No one in his immediate family suffers from a severe disability, but the congressman said he had a young friend with Down syndrome. "He was my pal, and we'd eat doughnuts together," Crenshaw said.  

The bill the House passed Wednesday represents a major legislative accomplishment in his career, he said.  

"It's pretty heartwarming for me," he said.  

Much is made of the so-called intersection of policy and politics. Hardly noticed, but perhaps more important to lawmakers themselves, is the intersection of policy and personal affairs, the bills that directly play a role in the lives of lawmakers and their loved ones.  

For the members who have children with severe disabilities, passage of the ABLE Act represented a deeply personal moment.  

"It's special," said Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, whose son Alex has Down syndrome. "Really a great feeling."  

The Texas Republican told the story of another piece of legislation — the Family Opportunity Act, which passed in 2005 as part of the Deficit Reduction Act — that's had a lasting impact on him as a father and as a congressman.  

Sessions recounted that Alex went up to President George W. Bush and said, "'Thank you for helping with the bill.'"  

"And the president had to ask: What bill?" Sessions said.  

Sessions said that prompted more questions from the president, and eventually Bush, who had known Alex since he was born, became a strong advocate for the legislation, which expanded Social Security Income benefits to certain disabled individuals who were previously ineligible.  

Fast forward nine years, Alex is 20. "Turns 21 in a month," Sessions said, noting that 21 has always represented a sort of coming of age. And with this new piece of legislation, Sessions said he felt the ABLE Act would give people like his son more freedom.  

"Happy birthday," Sessions said. "Happy birthday to parents who want their children to become independent."  

Sessions poured on the praise for members who had made the bill possible, from Crenshaw and Speaker John A. Boehner to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. And just as he named GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Washington Republican walked by, effusive in her own praise for Sessions, who is the co-chairman of the Down Syndrome Caucus in Congress.  

Earlier Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers told a story of a boy who was diagnosed with Down syndrome three days after he was born.  

"Seven years later, as a mom of that little boy, nothing has given me greater joy than seeing the positive impact he is having on this world," McMorris Rodgers said, visibly emotional as Boehner looked on with tears welling in his own eyes.  

McMorris Rodgers said the ABLE Act would "empower" many people, "including people like my son Cole, for the opportunity for a better life, and that's why we are here," she said. Cole joined his mother on the floor for the vote.  

Of course, the ABLE Act has not been without obstacles. As Crenshaw pointed out, he first introduced the bill in 2006.  

"Any time you deal with the tax code," things slow down, Crenshaw explained when asked why the bill had taken so long to get across the finish line.  

The bill is complicated by its need for an offset. The Congressional Budget Office calculates the cost to be $2.1 billion over 10 years, and there was talk for a while of including the bill in tax-extender legislation the House also passed Wednesday, which did not have offsets.  

That left members scrambling to find a way to pay for the legislation. The bill makes up for the cost of the tax-free accounts by making a number of changes to Medicare payments and other provisions, including a nine-cent raise in the cargo fuel excise tax, charging 15 percent more on certain federal payments to Medicare providers as a means to collect taxes, and raising the age by one year at which Social Security disability insurance benefits would kick in. It also would stop Medicare payments for penis pumps , among other things.  

But what lawmakers hope the bill really does is give the disabled and their families a helping hand — something they can point to with pride when their congressional careers come to an end: A few lines in the labyrinthine U.S. tax code that made a difference.  

Annie Shuppy contributed to this report.