May 22, 2002
This past year was extraordinary - in many ways.
The anthrax attack on my office and - even more - September 11th, are, by far, my most harrowing memories from this past year.
I also have memories of great heroism. I remember visiting Ground Zero several days after the attacks with more than 40 other Senators. We felt that we needed to be there to show our solidarity with the people of New York. We talked that day with firefighters who had barely slept in days. Near a mountain of rubble and wreckage that is beyond my ability to describe, I saw a sign scrawled on a wall. It read simply: "We will never forget."
In January, I went to Afghanistan. Stopping in Uzbekistan, I met an Army private from Midland, South Dakota. It had been almost two years since his last leave. He was just completing a tour of duty in Bosnia on September 11th. He had been living in tents and eating MREs for the last couple of months. He could have come home. Instead, he volunteered to go to Central Asia to be part of the war against terrorism. He said he was honored to do so.
One of my most hopeful memories from last year was the day Jim Jeffords announced he was becoming an Independent. One year later, in a number of significant ways, that hope seems to have been justified.
We all remember that powerful and eloquent speech in which Senator Jeffords explained why he was leaving the Republican party. I expect it will go down in history as one of the great American declarations of political conscience. I also remember something else Jim Jeffords said that day. Right after he made that speech, we spoke on the phone. I congratulated him on his speech. He replied: "I hope now we can make a difference."
I think we have made a difference - in three important ways.
First, we broke the logjam on a number of critical issues that had languished under Republican leadership.
Just three weeks after the switch, we passed a real, enforceable Patients' Bill of Rights that had been bottled up for three years in the Senate. That was the first bill I called up as Majority leader.
In March, we finally passed the McCain-Feingold bill, the first comprehensive campaign finance reforms in America since Watergate. For six years, a Republican Senate had refused to clean up a political system that was out of control; in six months, we put McCain-Feingold on President Bush's desk - where he had no choice but to sign it.
In April, the Senate passed a bipartisan election reform bill - to make sure that what happened in Florida in the last election never happens again. In May, we passed a new Farm Bill. For six years, everyone knew that "Freedom to Farm" was broken. Instead of patching it with disaster payment after disaster payment, we finally replaced it with a system that is fairer and more responsible.
Tomorrow - I hope - the Senate will vote on a major trade package that addresses - for the first time - the dual reality of trade. It recognizes that, while our economy as a whole benefits from global trade, some workers get hurt. Democrats insisted that we put programs in place to help those workers.
That's a difference that would not have happened - a balance we would not have achieved - a year ago.
A second place where we made a difference was in uniting to meet the challenges of September 11th.
We passed a resolution giving the President the authority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the September 11th attacks. We passed billions of dollars in emergency aid to help communities and individuals devastated in the attacks. We passed tough new airline passenger and baggage-screening laws, and criminal background checks for airport workers. We gave law enforcement new powers to track, arrest and prosecute terrorists and potential terrorists. We passed new measures to crack down on money laundering and cut off the terrorists' financial lifelines.
We also passed measures to enhance port security by hiring more security officers, purchasing more security equipment, and improving the security infrastructure of our ports. We've strengthened America's defenses against bioterrorism by increasing our national supply of antibiotics and vaccines, and enhancing our research and response capabilities. And just last week, the President signed a bill to improve security at our borders by hiring new agents, and keeping track of people who are in America on visas.
We've had some differences of opinion over precisely how to fight the war on terrorism. Because we had a Democratic majority in the Senate - because the system of checks and balances was working - we were able to debate those differences. That debate produced better bills.
Let me give you one example: both parties agreed that our pre-September 11th system of airport security was inadequate. Republicans, however, wanted to retain most of the old system. They wanted to keep private baggage screeners and simply add some federal oversight. Democrats agreed with pilots, flight attendants - and the majority of Americans - that we needed to professionalize the entire operation.
Our position prevailed. And America is safer as a result.
There was - and continues to be - an extraordinary degree of unity between Congress and this Administration regarding the war on terrorism - both at home and abroad. And we're all agreed that much more needs to be done. But when we have concerns, we will make them known. And when we have questions, we will ask them. We will speak out because our first responsibility is to the security of this country. Despite what some in the Administration have suggested, silence in the face of security lapses is not patriotism. If anything, it is the opposite. And the consequences of such silence can be devastating.
Let me be clear: no one has said that the President could have prevented the tragedy of September 11th. But, by the same token, no one can take much comfort from the picture that has emerged of government agencies that seem totally out of synch with each other - or that it has taken eight months to begin putting that picture together.
We need to find out what breakdowns happened before September 11th, so we can make sure they never happen again. If that requires questions, we'll ask them. If it requires hearings, we'll hold them. And if Republicans will agree on a independent commission, we'll appoint one.
Winning the war on terrorism, holding those who attacked us accountable, and preventing future terrorist attacks on our nation must - and will - remain our top priorities. This is not about politics. This is about national security - the government's most fundamental responsibility.
The third way Democrats have made a difference is by protecting some of America's most treasured resources and values.
Think about what happened in the six months that Republicans controlled the White House, the House, and the Senate. They passed an economic plan that squandered a hard-won surplus, and put America back into deficits. They blocked new regulations to protect workers from workplace injuries. They rolled back environmental protections. That's just some of what they did in six months. Imagine where we'd be now if they'd had another year. In the year since the Jeffords switch, Democrats have prevented further damage to America's long term fiscal strength by rejecting Republican proposals for hundreds of billions of dollars in new tax cuts.
Republicans pushed to repeal the corporate "alternative minimum tax" and give some of the most profitable companies in America retroactive refunds for virtually every penny they'd paid in taxes for the last 15 years. Enron alone would have walked away with $250 million from the taxpayers. Having a majority in the Senate enabled us to say no to that outrageous misuse of taxpayers' dollars -- and instead pass a real economic stimulus package that included unemployment benefits for laid-off workers and responsible tax relief for businesses that invest in America's future.
We have also stopped Republicans - so far - from privatizing Social Security, which would require cuts in Social Security benefits, and compound the already considerable pressures we face as a result of the Baby Boomers' coming retirement.
We've protected America's natural treasures by rejecting the Republican plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and exploration. Instead of tying America's energy future to the old idea that we can drill our way to energy independence, we insisted on a more balanced national energy plan - one that includes new investments in conservation and development of alternative energy sources.
And we've stopped efforts to roll back decades of progress on civil rights, workers rights, and women's rights - including the right to choose.
Some people want to call our refusal to rubber stamp the Republican agenda obstructionism. I see it as rejecting failed ideas in the name of real solutions. And I call that progress. The reason we were able to make that progress is because - since regaining the Senate a year ago - Democrats have restored a sense of balance to our system of checks and balances.
Some people say that Senate Democrats have blocked the nominations of judicial candidates. Here's the truth: In one year, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected exactly one nominee for the federal bench. The Senate has confirmed 57 judges. That is more in one year than Senate Republicans confirmed for President Reagan in 1981 - more than Senate Democrats confirmed for President Clinton in 1993. We hope to be able to fill more judicial vacancies. But we will not confirm without question the nominations of people whose views and records put them outside of the mainstream, or those who show hostility to settled law. The Constitution makes it clear that it requires more than a Presidential nomination to appoint a federal judge. It also takes the advice and consent of the Senate - and we take that responsibility seriously.
In one year, we have passed some long-stalled measures that make a difference in people's lives; restored a degree of bipartisanship at a time of crisis; and protected some of America's most treasured resources and values. For America, this has been a tragic, turbulent - but ultimately triumphant - year.
But it's only been one year.
We're proud of the unity we've shown, and the success we've had in fighting the war on terrorism and laying the foundation for stronger homeland security. That work is critical, it is not finished, and we will continue to work together to see that it continues.
But those responsibilities - as critical as they are - are only part of what this Congress and this Administration must do. People need to know that their economic future, and their retirement, is secure, too. People need to know that their children can get a good education and that the air they breathe and the water they drink is safe.
These are all critical parts of a secure future, too. Congress and the Administration ought to be working just as hard, and just as closely, on these priorities as we are on winning the war on terrorism.
Democrats and Republicans - at least in Washington - have dramatically different plans in every one of these areas.
On Social Security, the Baby Boom is about to become a senior boom. The first wave of the Baby Boomers will retire in eight years. A year ago, we were on a path that would have enabled us to save Social Security - a path that really did "put Social Security first." We still have time to return to that path. With the right leadership, we could pass a real Social Security reform plan: one that sets aside surpluses today to pay for retirement benefits tomorrow; updates the benefits; and finds needed savings to put it on sound, long-term footing. But we should not go down the privatization path, which will drain funds from Social Security, and lead to cuts in benefits.
On Medicare prescription drugs, we need to finish the job begun with Medicare's creation a generation ago, and add an affordable, meaningful, and universal prescription drug benefit to that program. The Administration has proposed a plan that covers only 6 percent of seniors. Not only are middle class seniors left out, but so are many seniors who are struggling to get by on as little as $1000 a month. The plan House Republicans are working on appears no better. It makes great claims - but you need to look at the small print: no coverage for your costs between $170 and $400 a month - where many seniors' bills fall. No effort to address soaring prices. No coverage at all unless private insurers choose to offer it - and the insurance industry has already said it won't.
We can do better. We need to bring down the price of prescription drugs not just for seniors, but for all Americans. Democrats support an affordable, reliable prescription drug benefit that would be available as an option to every Medicare beneficiary. Seniors who want the coverage would pay a share; Medicare would pay the rest. For the first time, seniors would be able to use their group purchasing power to get lower prices from the drug companies.
Social Security and Medicare are America's public pension system. Just as we need to strengthen them, we must also do more to protect private pensions.
The collapse of Enron left thousands of former Enron employees without jobs and without savings. It also did something else: it revealed dangerous flaws in our private pension system that must be corrected if the Baby Boomers - and those who come after us - are going to be able to retire securely.
We need to look at everything - from federal rules governing: 401(k) plans to corporate disclosure requirements under securities laws to accounting reforms and whether the accounting industry's self-regulatory system is sufficient. We need to learn what happened, act on what we learn, and create tough new criminal penalties for corporate fraud.
We also want to increase the number of Americans who have private pensions. We can do that by working with employers to make it easier and more affordable for them to offer pensions. With the right leadership, we can increase the number of Americans with pensions, and protect employees and investors without creating unnecessary red tape for law-abiding businesses.
On education: the first bill the Senate passed under Democratic control was a bipartisan education reform bill, the "No Child Left Behind Act." There are a lot of good things in the new law, including new accountability measures - that are badly needed. President Bush signed it just five months ago. Unfortunately, the President's own budget for next year drastically underfunds it. The Administration's budget eliminates 28 education programs and cuts eight more from the very bill he just signed - cuts that total more than $1 billion overall. It also continues to dramatically under-fund the federal government's share of the cost of special education.
School enrollments will continue to rise every year for the next 8 years. We need to hire more than 2 million qualified new teachers by the end of the decade. Clearly, just throwing money at schools isn't the answer. But real reform requires real resources. We'll see that those resources are there.
Finally, on the environment: Republicans and the Administration have announced plans to rewrite the Clean Water Act to allow more pollutants into our water. On the Clean Air Act, the Administration has delayed a requirement to reduce toxic emissions from a variety of industrial sources. Democrats will enforce and strengthen America's clean air and clean water laws, and see that polluters - and not taxpayers - pay when our environment is damaged. I've always been fascinated by the history of the Senate, and by some of the people who have preceded me as Majority Leader.
With Robert Caro's new book, and, now, with a new movie on HBO, a lot of people are being reminded about one of them - Lyndon Johnson - and what a larger-than-life figure he was.
People have long debated what made LBJ such a successful Majority Leader, why he was able to make such a difference. Some people say it was his style. I hope it is not just - as others have suggested - his size.
I think LBJ revealed the real source of his passion himself in 1965, when he was proposing the Voting Rights Act. He recalled that 40 years earlier - when he was 21 years old - he took a year off from college to work as a student teacher. During that year, he taught poor Hispanic children in a little town called Cotulla, Texas.
He said: "Somehow, you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.
"It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams back then that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country," he said.
"But now I have that chance," he said. "And I'll let you in on a secret: I mean to use it."
I make no secret about this: As long as Democrats hold a majority in the United States Senate, we mean to use that majority to help children all across America get a good education, to see that seniors are secure in their retirement, and to see that the future is secure for all of America's people.
To me, that is a difference worth making.
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