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Sheldon W.
Democrat RI

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  • Continuing Appropriations

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

    Posted on 2013-10-01

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    WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, let me thank the distinguished Senator from Mississippi for his remarks about these Honor Flight veterans. We just had a group come down from Rhode Island, including one gentleman who was 100 years old. It was so meaningful for them. In Rhode Island, it is particularly the fire chiefs and the firefighters who have been helping to organize these honor flights, and Chief George Farrell and others took immense pleasure and meaning out of having brought these gentlemen down and enabling them to have this recognition.

    The tide of time is sweeping that ``greatest generation'' into its dying years, and while they are still among us, it is a wonderful thing to do. So I thank the Senator from Mississippi for that.

    I came to the floor to, I guess, say: Welcome to tea party shutdown, day 1. We do not know how long this is going to go, but it is already having, I will say, miserable impact in Rhode Island.

    We have as many as 7,000 Federal employees facing furlough. We just got word that at Naval Station Newport 800 men and women have been furloughed. Our Rhode Island National Guard let us know they are anticipating 300 furloughs. These are people who work hard for our Federal Government. They do important jobs, particularly with respect to the National Guard and Naval Station Newport. They support our troops. It is not fair to them that the tea party extremists over in the House would insist on putting them out of work in order to force a way around the constitutional process of government here in Congress.

    The key to putting those 7,000 Rhode Islanders, the 800 Naval Station Newport, the 300 civilian guardsmen employees, back on the job is a very simple one, and it is in the hands of Speaker Boehner. All he has to do is call up the continuing resolution. All he has to do is take the measure the Senate passed and put it before the House for a vote. Just give it a vote. That is all it takes.

    Why does he not do that? He doesn't do that because there is this peculiarity over in the House called the Hastert rule. It is not a real rule; it is just called that. It is a practice. It is a practice named after former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert. The practice is that if your own caucus won't agree on a bill--if the Republicans, all by themselves in a room with no Democrats present, won't agree on a bill-- then the Speaker won't even give Democrats a chance to vote on it. It will never come to the floor. It is the most partisan rule or practice that exists in this body, in my estimation, and it has been a problem for the Republicans before. There have been times when Speaker Boehner has had to use that key he has to simply put a measure before the body without clearing that partisan prescreening by his Republicans. He has done it over and over to protect the Republican Party from itself, when they were going to force choices that would be terrible for the country and terrible for the party, ultimately.

    The first was on the fiscal cliff. Remember the hair's-breadth antics that led up to the fiscal cliff? Well, finally, Speaker Boehner put the fiscal cliff bill to a vote in the House and it passed 2 to 1. The Republicans voted against it in the caucus, so we know it flunked the Hastert rule test. But it passed the House with a bipartisan vote of Republicans and Democrats, and it spared us then from going off the fiscal cliff.

    That was the right call for the Speaker to make. It was the right call for the country. It was the right call for his party because they didn't want to own that debacle and he made a good decision at that time.

    The next was the Violence Against Women Act. Over and over we have passed the Violence Against Women Act in bipartisan fashion in the Senate, and it has been passed in bipartisan fashion over in the House. We passed it again in bipartisan fashion in the Senate, but it was going to fail in the House. Well, how do you go back to your voters, if you are a reasonable House Member, and say: We refused for the first time to pass the Violence Against Women Act? It came over in bipartisan fashion from the Senate. It had strong support here, but we refused to pass it.

    Well, they couldn't.

    [[Page S7091]] So once again Speaker Boehner waived the so-called Hastert rule--this practice of having to have his caucus have a pre-veto on anything that comes to the floor--and he brought the Violence Against Women Act to the floor, and once again it passed. It passed with Democratic and Republican support.

    The third time was the disaster bill for Sandy. Many of our States were hit darn hard by Sandy. New York and New Jersey took really crushing blows. But the House Republicans didn't want to fund this particular disaster recovery. In fact, they voted 3 to 1 against it--3 to 1 against disaster recovery for their fellow Americans. That is how they voted over there. But Speaker Boehner knew how much trouble he would be in with, among others, Governor Christie of New Jersey, so he called it up anyway. He violated this so-called Hastert rule and he brought it up for a vote, and it passed again in bipartisan fashion.

    Today, tonight, tomorrow, the next day--any time he chooses--Speaker Boehner can turn the key and unlock the government tea party shutdown. He can do that. He has done it three times before. Of course, that got all his tea party folks all excited and they started making new threats and new challenges and new demands, so he is reluctant to go down that road again. But he has done it before, and it remains in his hands. I would submit it is the right thing to do for our country, and that he should put that first.

    The first way they fouled up the continuing resolution was to try and stall the Affordable Care Act on it. Well, we voted that down over and over, and cooler heads may be beginning to prevail. But I would remind everybody there are two pretty distinct, I guess we will call them ObamaCares now, since that is the word that is being used--two ObamaCares out there. One, to use Majority Leader Reid's phrase, is a punch line. It is the punch line ``ObamaCare'' that revs people up at rallies, that sends that rightwing e-mail chain into vibrations, but which is mostly a product of a fertile and overheated imagination.

    The real ObamaCare, at least the real one we see in my home State of Rhode Island, is actually something we like a lot. Seniors are getting protection from the dreaded doughnut hole and are saving over $1,000 each on prescription medications, on average. They see the Affordable Care Act as something that is having a real benefit in their lives right now.

    Parents, such as myself, who have kids out of college and under 26-- and I hear this from everybody across Rhode Island--are saying: Thank gosh the Affordable Care Act is there, because my daughter is out of college and she hasn't been able to find a job yet that has a health care benefit, so I can keep her on my policy and I don't have to worry if she gets sick the whole family could be bust. Having her on my policy makes me feel so good. Thank you for that.

    That is what I hear. That is a real and good thing for actual Rhode Islanders. It is not the imaginary ObamaCare. It is the real ObamaCare.

    Families who have a child with a preexisting condition--what do you do about that? You could spend down and give up all your resources, everything you have worked for and earned, so that your family can go on Medicaid--that is one way--or you could stay in the same job forever because the minute you try to move from your employer's health care plan to a new employer's health care plan, your child's preexisting condition doesn't get covered any longer. So you are trapped. Across this country, people are spared that agony by the Affordable Care Act.

    We had Peter Orszag in the other day to talk to our caucus. He said that if you extend out the cost of Medicare to the future, it is already down $1.2 trillion from the savings we see from reforms that are happening in red States, in blue States, in Massachusetts, where the Presiding Officer is from, in Utah, in Pennsylvania, in Wisconsin, in Minnesota, in California, in Rhode Island--all across the country. It is not political. It is about a better health care system, and we are already seeing the savings.

    That is what they want to take away. That is what they want to stop. One thousand dollars out of the pockets of seniors and back to the pharmaceutical companies--that is what the result would be; parents having to lose the protection for their kids at 26; families trapped with a child with a preexisting condition never able to leave the company they work for; and the savings that we are already seeing beginning to evaporate. Why do you shut down the country and harm people in those ways? It makes no sense. The tea party shutdown has to stop.

    I ordinarily come to the floor at this time to discuss the appalling way the Senate and the House are blissfully ignoring the evidence all around us of what carbon pollution is doing to our atmosphere and oceans. There is a clear connection between the problems we are in today that have caused this tea party government shutdown and our inability to face the facts about carbon pollution as a Congress. There are some similar characteristics between those two problems, and I would like to discuss them briefly.

    One characteristic is an inability to face and address present or looming problems--real ones. In the case of the tea party shutdown, they have actually created a massive artificial problem--a government shutdown for our country--at the same time that the tea party members prevent us from getting together to take the Senate budget and House budget and bring them into conference and agreement in the ordinary process like adults. It is all in the service of the pretense I just discussed: that the Affordable Care Act isn't actually good for our country. It is a triple phony-problem whammy for our country. This inability to face and address real problems is the first characteristic.

    The second characteristic is that inability is based on opposition that stands on false or fanciful arguments based more on propaganda than facts. In the case of climate, the fanciful argument--the falsehood--is that the jury is still out. The evidence is not only real, but it is overwhelming right now.

    The third characteristic is that the opposition that gives rise to this inability to face and address real problems is fomented by small interest groups wishing to exercise undue influence without due regard for the harm they cause to their fellow Americans.

    That is our DC trifecta these days. We can't deal with real problems. We have an atmosphere of phony arguments and propaganda that foul things up, and it is based on opposition that is driven by small but powerful special interests.

    I hope and pray the American people will send a strong message to the tea party to knock off the tea party shutdown that is closing and fracturing our government. I hope the response of the American people is a wake-up call to them. As one faction of one party in one House of Congress in one branch of our separated powers of government, they don't get to have everything their way. That is not the way the Constitution was structured. And that is particularly true when the public doesn't agree with them--and the public doesn't agree with them. They just lost an election on this exact issue.

    We are going to have other disagreements, and if we just roll through this one and then bang right up against the next hostage scenario--very likely on the debt limit, which, if we blow that and go into default, will be even more catastrophic than the accumulating economic harm of a government shutdown--if we keep going into one hostage scenario after another, then we won't have solved the real problem: We cannot work like responsible adults when a minority--a faction of one party in one House in one branch of government--is having the procedural equivalent of a tantrum.

    And true as science and real as Mother Nature, we have the problem of carbon pollution bearing down upon us. Will the polluters prevent action on that? Will we fail to do our duty as representatives of the American people? Will we be unable to face and address this real problem because we are opposed by false and fanciful arguments, with the strings pulled by special interests, instead of us looking plainly at the problems and coming together for a reasonable solution? This has been a different day than my usual ``time to wake up'' speech. It is time to wake up to the problems of carbon pollution and climate change. It is also time to wake up to the peculiar [[Page S7092]] way that special and narrow interests are able to tie this body in knots and do damage to the American public for their own benefit. That larger problem is something we are going to have to reconcile ourselves with. If we just look at this as one problem--the tea party shutdown-- and we get through it, we will simply go on to another unless we have decided that our Constitution matters for something, that the structure of government the Founding Fathers put together gave us a procedure to work out our differences and that we should follow that constitutional procedure even when we have strong feelings about something. That is the legacy of the men and women who founded this country. It is the legacy for which men and women have fought and bled and died. It besmirches that legacy to have a tiny faction of one party in one House of one branch of government break the whole mechanism just because they want everything their own way.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER (Ms. Warren). The Senator from Ohio.

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