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John R.
Democrat RI

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  • Nomination of Robert Leon Wilkins to Be United States Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit

    by Senator Jack Reed

    Posted on 2014-01-09

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    Read More about Nomination of Robert Leon Wilkins to Be United States Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit

    REED. Mr. President, I wish to thank the Senator from Michigan, my chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and I simply wish to make a few comments about this afternoon's proceedings with respect to unemployment insurance. The reason we were here, and we can't lose sight of that, is that 1.3 million Americans, as of December 28, lost their extended unemployment benefits. They are without the modest support of roughly $300 to $350 a week. Every week, 73,000 more Americans lose this support. We are going to see this number grow and grow and grow and grow while we talk and talk and talk and talk.

    Along with Senator Heller, we proposed a very straightforward mechanism: a 90 day extension and picking up retroactively those who had lost it, unpaid for, so we could work on some of the difficult issues my colleagues have all explored this afternoon.

    In listening to my colleagues, we made the determination there was a sincere concern and desire on the part of my Republican colleagues particularly that any extension of benefits be paid for. Most frequently, we don't pay for these benefits. We have on occasion, but most times we consider it emergency spending. We go ahead and authorize the payments and we don't offset it. But the concern was raised repeatedly and very strenuously that these benefits should be paid for. Also, there were several proposals to do that.

    So working closely with my colleagues, we considered the best approach for it was not simply to bring up the Reed-Heller bill, the 90 day extension, but to respond as best we could to these concerns. So the provision we brought up today is fully offset, but it goes beyond 90 days because the simple logic was that going through the travail of finding pay-fors is not something we want to do every 90 days. It is something we should do seriously but for as long as possible. So our provision would be able to carry these benefits through to the middle of November, and it required finding offsets.

    The other thing we have heard from our Republican colleagues is that we shouldn't use any revenue--no tax provisions. In the Democratic caucus we have seen this extension of extended unemployment insurance benefits come up so many times under Republican Presidents and Democratic Presidents completely unpaid for. But also in terms of seriously and thoughtfully balancing the way we pay for provisions, we have many times suggested, which I think is common sense, let's have a mix of revenue and other provisions--spending provisions. Let's do that; 50-50 or some fair combination. In fact, I think the American people would see that as the most sensible approach to doing the work of government. But once again we yielded to the perceptions and the demands, in some respects, that there be no revenue provisions in this bill.

    As a result, we had to look for a series of pay-fors that didn't involve revenues. That was a deliberate attempt to reach across and to say: We hear you. You want it fully paid for, you want no spending, and you want provisions that will not involve revenue. So we proposed a major provision--an extension of the mandatory sequestration--that was included in the budget agreement and that had overwhelming support in the Senate--for a bit over an additional year, which gained us, roughly--and these are rough figures--about $17 billion.

    Then we took one of the provisions that was offered by my colleague Senator Portman, who has been working very assiduously and very thoughtfully on these issues, with respect to the double collection of both SSDI benefits and unemployment compensation benefits and we tried to focus it and make it narrower, and that resulted in $1 billion, giving us sufficient funds to carry this program through--if we voted today, starting as soon as the House passed it--all the way to the middle of November. That is where we are today.

    We still are open to alternatives to try to deal with this issue. I know many of my colleagues on the Democratic side have a long list of revenue provisions. In fact, Chairman Levin has, through his work, a list of what many would call--many Americans--egregious loopholes that corporations enjoy. But certainly there are other ways to pay for this. But we are still trying to work through this.

    We are still trying to find a bipartisan approach to deal with the issue of the moment, the crisis of the moment, and that is 1.4 million Americans today--and that number is growing--who worked hard and through no fault of their own lost their job and who are now struggling to get by with a modest $300 or $350 a week.

    One final point. This is a crisis of the moment. I know some of my colleagues are talking about an issue--the issue of military pensions-- that doesn't become effective, as I understand it, until 2015. There are other ways to deal with it. But that is a fair position to advance at any time, and I have great sympathy for that position.

    I would hate to see other issues, systematic reform of our training programs--which takes time, effort, and focused attention by committees typically--essentially prevent a response to the immediate crisis of people who are without jobs, who are desperately looking, and now don't have very modest support to pay for their rent, pay for their heat, and provide some support for their families.

    We are still engaged. We will have a vote Monday. I hope we can succeed on that procedural vote. Regardless, we are going to come back and back, because this number of Americans--growing each week by approximately 70,000--needs our response, not just our comments on the floor of the Senate.

    I yield back.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Michigan.

    Iraq Mr. LEVIN. Mr. President, the current situation in Iraq is deeply disturbing. The violence there is a human tragedy, and the resurgence of Al Qaeda-affiliated forces in Fallujah and elsewhere represents a threat not just to the people of Iraq but to our own security and that of our friends and allies in the region. So I very much share in concerns many of us have expressed about recent developments in Iraq.

    The United States has announced it will expedite military assistance, including delivery of unmanned aerial vehicles and HELLFIRE missiles. That is appropriate. The administration has stepped up intelligence sharing to help Iraq security forces in their fight. That is appropriate. The administration is holding ongoing conversations with Iraq about other ways in which the United States might assist, and that is appropriate.

    One form that assistance might take is in the sale of weapons such as attack helicopters to Iraq. The issue is not whether such aircraft would help Iraq fight violent extremists; they would. The question is whether the Maliki government would use those aircraft, for instance, only against violent extremists, and whether we receive credible assurances that such weapons will be used to target Iraq's real enemies and not to further sectarian political objectives. With credible assurances, it would be appropriate to provide Iraq such assistance.

    What it is wrong to do is to blame the Obama administration for the political failures of Iraqi leaders. Blaming the administration for failures and decisions by the Iraqi Government ignores not only history, it also leads to policy approaches that would not be in our interest or in the interests of the Iraqi people.

    [[Page S212]] For example, here is what Senator McCain and Senator Graham said recently: When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America's enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests. Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever.

    That argument ignores some important history. First, it ignores the fact that the 2011 withdrawal date for U.S. forces in Iraq was not set by President Obama but by President Bush. In December of 2008, just before he left office, President Bush signed an agreement with the Iraqi Government that called for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities in 2009, and the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. President Bush himself, standing next to Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad as they announced their agreement, said, ``The agreement lays out a framework for the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq.'' So the 2011 withdrawal date was set by President Bush, not by President Obama.

    As to whether our military commanders objected to our withdrawal from Iraq, here is what happened: While there was no mention from President Bush or Prime Minister Maliki when they announced their agreement of a U.S. troop presence after 2011, Secretary Gates and others discussed the possibility of some U.S. forces remaining in Iraq after 2011. Then, during 2011, the Obama administration entered into negotiations with the Iraqi Government with the goal of keeping some U.S. troops, in limited roles, in Iraq to assist Iraqi security forces after the 2011 withdrawal date set by President Bush. I and many other Members of Congress supported the idea of continuing a smaller, specialized U.S. military assistance force. While there was disagreement in the administration over the size of a residual force, what decided the issue wasn't how many troops would remain; rather, it was the Iraqi Government's refusal to agree to legal protections for U.S. troops, whatever their number. In the absence of such protections, it was the opinion of the military leaders that no U.S. forces should remain in Iraq, regardless of whether the number was 3,500 or 20,000.

    At a November 2011 Armed Services Committee hearing, I asked General Dempsey, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the importance of legal protections for our troops as part of any agreement to keep troops in Iraq after 2011. This is what the questions and answers were: Sen. Levin: Are you willing to have those forces remain without an agreement relative to immunity for those troops? Gen. Dempsey: No, sir, I am not. . . . It was the recommendation, advice and strong belief of the Joint Chiefs that we should not leave service men and women there without protections.

    Sen. Levin: And why is that? Gen. Dempsey: Because the--of the many institutions in Iraq that are still evolving and immature. The Iraqi judicial system is certainly among those. And we did not believe it was--it was appropriate, prudent to leave service men and women without judicial protections in a country that still had the challenge, as we know it has, and a very immature judicial system.

    Later in that same hearing, I asked General Dempsey if our commanders on the ground in Iraq shared that opinion. He responded: It was the topic of many secure video teleconferences and engagements person to person. . . . I can state that they also believed we needed the protections, both General Austin and General Mattis, in order to leave our troops there.

    Before our committee in February of 2013, General Austin, our commander on the ground in Iraq during the 2011 negotiations, testified that there were extensive discussions with Iraq about a continuing U.S. troop presence. He testified: We worked with the Iraqi leadership all the way up until the point in time when they decided they weren't going to be able to give us the protections that we needed to keep our troops there.

    As Secretary Panetta put it before our committee, the key moment in the negotiations was ``once [the Iraqis] made the decision that they were not going to provide any immunities for any level of force that we would have there.'' So our military leaders were very much unwilling to leave any U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq if they could be subjected to the vicissitudes of the Iraqi judicial system. It is therefore wrong to say that the withdrawal took place ``over the objections of our military leaders.'' It was Iraq's refusal to grant important legal protections to our troops that decided the matter.

    This criticism of the administration's Iraq policy also understates the importance of factors that have come to the forefront since the 2011 withdrawal. Foremost among these has been an Iraqi Government that has repeatedly pursued a sectarian agenda, disenfranchised Sunni Iraqis, failed to address Kurdish concerns over the status of Kirkuk and the hydrocarbons law, and alienated moderate Shia Iraqis who seek a more democratic and inclusive government. Prime Minister Maliki's governance shortfalls has stoked the sectarian tensions on which Al Qaeda and other extremist groups try to capitalize.

    Many Members of Congress have made clear that it is extremely difficult to support more robust assistance to the Iraqi Government unless the Iraqi leadership places the good of their country ahead of sectarian politics and unless it produces a practical strategy for governing Iraq on a more inclusive and less sectarian basis.

    For example, last October, I joined five colleagues--Senators McCain, Menendez, Corker, Inhofe, and Graham--in writing to President Obama, expressing our concern about deteriorating conditions in Iraq.

    I ask unanimous consent that our October 29, 2013, letter be printed in the Record.

    There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: U.S. Senate, Washington, DC, October 29, 2013.

    Hon. Barack Obama, President of the United States, The White House, Washington, DC.

    Dear President Obama: We are deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Iraq. As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visits Washington this week, we urge you to press him to formulate a comprehensive political and security strategy that can stabilize the country, enable Iraq to realize its vast potential, and help to safeguard our nation's enduring national security interests in Iraq.

    By nearly every indicator, security conditions in Iraq have dramatically worsened over the past two years. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has returned with a vengeance: It has regenerated the manpower, terrorist infrastructure, resources, and safe havens to sustain and increase the tempo and intensity of attacks and to penetrate deeper into all parts of Iraq than at any time in recent years. Indeed, an analysis this month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found, ``In 2010, the low point for the al-Qaeda effort in Iraq, car bombings declined to an average of 10 a month and multiple location attacks occurred only two or three times a year. In 2013, so far there has been an average of 68 car bombings a month and a multiple-location strike every 10 days.'' The United Nations estimates that more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq thus far this year--a level of violence not seen since the worst days of 2008.

    What's worse, the deteriorating conflict in Syria has enabled al-Qaeda in Iraq to transform into the larger and more lethal Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which now has a major base for operations spanning both Iraq and Syria. As the situation in both countries grows worse, and as ISIS gathers strength, we are deeply concerned that Al-Qaeda could use its new safe haven in Iraq and Syria to launch attacks against U.S. interests and those of our friends and allies.

    Unfortunately, Prime Minister Maliki's mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence. By too often pursuing a sectarian and authoritarian agenda, Prime Minister Maliki and his allies are disenfranchising Sunni Iraqis, marginalizing Kurdish Iraqis, and alienating the many Shia Iraqis who have a democratic, inclusive, and pluralistic vision for their country. This failure of governance is driving many Sunni Iraqis into the arms of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and fueling the rise of violence, which in turn is radicalizing Shia Iraqi communities and leading many Shia militant groups to remobilize. These were the same conditions that drove Iraq toward civil war during the last decade, and we fear that fate could befall Iraq once again.

    We therefore urge you to take the following steps as Prime Minister Maliki visits Washington: First, we believe the Prime Minister's visit is an important opportunity to reengage with the American people about the continuing strategic importance of Iraq. Though the war in Iraq is over, Americans need to understand that the United States has an enduring national security interest in the development of a sovereign, stable, and democratic Iraq that can secure its own citizens [[Page S213]] and territory, sustain its own economic growth, resolve its own internal disputes through inclusive and pluralistic politics, and cooperate as a strategic partner of the United States--a vision of our relationship that was best expressed in the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement.

    Second, we urge you to make clear to Prime Minister Maliki that the extent of Iran's malign influence in the Iraqi government is a serious problem in our bilateral relationship, especially for the Congress. Published reports demonstrate that the Iranian regime uses Iraqi airspace to transit military assistance into Syria to support Assad and his forces. Furthermore, attacks against the residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq are reprehensible, especially because the Iraqi government pledged to protect these people. Prime Minister Maliki must understand that actions such as these need to stop. Not only do they make it difficult for Iraq's friends in the United States to build public support, especially in the Congress, to enhance our strategic partnership, but they also undermine Iraq's standing as a responsible member of the international community.

    Third, we encourage you to step up our counterterrorism support for Iraq. It is in our national security interest to enhance the effectiveness of Iraq's security forces, especially through greater intelligence sharing. However, in addition to our aforementioned concerns, we must see more evidence from Prime Minister Maliki that U.S. security assistance and arms sales are part of a comprehensive Iraqi strategy that addresses the political sources of the current violence and seeks to bring lasting peace to the country.

    This leads us to the final and most important point that we urge you to stress with Prime Minister Maliki: If he devises and implements a real governance strategy for Iraq, the United States is ready to provide the appropriate support to help that strategy succeed. Iraq's challenges will never be solved through security operations alone. Indeed, as the United States learned through its own hard experience in Iraq, applying security solutions to political problems will only make those problems worse.

    It is essential that you urge Prime Minister Maliki to adopt a strategy to address Iraq's serious problems of governance. Such a strategy should unite Iraqis of every sect and ethnicity in a reformed constitutional order, based on the rule of law, which can give Iraqis a real stake in their nation's progress, marginalize Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other violent extremists, and bring lasting peace to the country. To be effective, an Iraqi political strategy should involve sharing greater national power and revenue with Sunni Iraqis, reconciling with Sunni leaders, and ending de-Baathification and other policies of blanket retribution. It should include agreements with the Kurdistan Regional Government to share hydrocarbon revenues and resolve territorial disputes. And it requires a clear commitment that the elections scheduled for next year will happen freely, fairly, and inclusively in all parts of Iraq, and that the necessary preparations will be taken.

    If Prime Minister Maliki were to take actions such as these, he could cement his legacy as the leader who safeguarded his country's sovereignty and laid the foundation for the new Iraq. In this endeavor, Prime Minister Maliki and our other Iraqi partners would have our support, including appropriate security assistance, and we would encourage you to provide U.S. diplomatic support at the highest levels to help Iraqis reach the necessary political agreements before the 2014 elections. However, if Prime Minister Maliki continues to marginalize the Kurds, alienate many Shia, and treat large numbers of Sunnis as terrorists, no amount of security assistance will be able to bring stability and security to Iraq. That is not a legacy we want for Prime Minister Maliki, and that is not an outcome that would serve America's national interests.

    Sincerely, Carl Levin.

    John McCain.

    Robert Menendez.

    Bob Corker.

    James M. Inhofe.

    Lindsey Graham.

    Mr. LEVIN. In our letter, written as Prime Minister Malaki was visiting Washington, we supported an increase in support for Iraq's counterterrorism efforts. But we made clear that the Iraqi Government must provide a practical plan for using such aid and provide assurances relative to whom advanced weapons would be used against. We wrote President Obama as follows: It is in our national security interest to enhance the effectiveness of Iraq's security forces, especially through greater intelligence sharing. However . . . we must see more evidence from Prime Minister Maliki that U.S. security assistance and arms sales are part of a comprehensive Iraqi strategy that addresses the political sources of the current violence and seeks to bring lasting peace to the country.

    We further wrote: This leads us to the final and most important point that we urge you to stress with Prime Minister Maliki: If he devises and implements a real governance strategy for Iraq, the United States is ready to provide the appropriate support to help that strategy succeed.

    And: If Prime Minister Maliki continues to marginalize the Kurds, alienate many Shia, and treat large numbers of Sunnis as terrorists, no amount of security assistance will be able to bring stability and security to Iraq.

    It is a tragedy for the Iraqi people and a real security concern for the United States that Prime Minister Maliki has yet to produce a strategy for broadly based governance in Iraq. We should not forget the 2011 withdrawal date for American troops from Iraq was negotiated by President Bush. We should not forget the decision to reject an ongoing U.S. troop presence after 2011 was Iraq's, because of Iraq's refusal to assure us that our troops would have protections from Iraqi courts and prosecution. We should not forget that our military leaders supported the decision not to leave our troops in Iraq without legal protections from Iraqi prosecution. We should not forget that while an ongoing relationship is in our interests, no amount of military equipment from us will protect the Iraqi people if their government continues to place sectarian goals ahead of sound governance.

    So we should use opportunities to assist Iraq in its struggle against violent extremism and for stability and security, but Iraq's fate ultimately rests with its people and their leaders.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Udall of Colorado). The Senator from Alabama.

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