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Coronavirus

Floor Speech

Date: Dec. 7, 2020
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, speaking both as a Senator from Vermont and as vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am speaking with concern about what has been happening in the Senate.

It has been 321 days since the first COVID-19 case was reported in the United States--321 days. It has been 282 days since the first COVID-19 death was reported in the United States.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate in November was 6.7 percent, nearly double the rate in November of last year. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the country have closed permanently, all due to COVID.

As of today, there are more than 14,800,000 reported cases of COVID- 19 in the United States. To put that in perspective, that is 1 million more than just a week ago. More than 282,000 Americans have died, and it has been 256 days since the Senate passed the CARES Act--256 days since the Senate acted in a comprehensive, meaningful way to address the real and mounting concerns and needs of our constituents.

My State of Vermont is like everywhere else. Healthcare workers, caregivers, business owners, employees, teachers, and students are all in need of support during these difficult and uncertain times.

We have families wrestling with heightened food insecurity. People for the first time in their lives cannot feed their children and they cannot feed themselves. They have the threat of eviction from their homes hanging over them.

We have States that are strapped by budget shortfalls and are forced to lay off thousands of employees, people who have worked so hard for the people of their State.

It has been 205 days since the House first passed the Heroes Act, and it has been 65 days since they stepped forward to offer a substantial compromise on the Heroes Act and passed it again. And where does it sit? It sits on my friend the Republican leader's desk. It is collecting dust. It is the largest and most significant bill in the McConnell legislative graveyard.

Why aren't we voting? Look what happens. We can't even bring ourselves to actually vote on something to help Americans, to help the people of our own States. They are being thrown out of their houses, their apartments, and out of their jobs, and we come in for a few days and then get on an airplane and fly back home, and the taxpayers pay for it, taxpayers paying our salaries and all and nothing happens.

Now, like millions of Americans, I am encouraged by the news of recent weeks that pharmaceutical companies are making significant progress on vaccine development. I am encouraged that some of these vaccines may be available as early as later this month.

Let's not forget why we were able to develop vaccines so quickly. It is because of longstanding Federal investment in cutting-edge research at the National Institutes of Health--research that has been backed by so many of us in both parties for years in this body. NIH funded research in genetic and genomic sequencing and enabled the research of COVID-19 that led to the vaccine. This is the power of Federal dollars when it is targeted to solve a national--a national--problem. We need more of that today.

The development of several promised vaccines is great news, but if you don't have a comprehensive plan in place and resources implemented, how can we be sure the vaccination is safe, effective, widely available, and free?

Can anybody stand up and say that every part of their State will have vaccination? No, the money is not there yet, and we haven't done anything on that. It is a complete abdication of our responsibility as elected Representatives that we have simply failed to act.

Now, I know that my friends across the aisle will probably rush to the floor, and they will blame Democrats for stalling on their inadequate, face-saving proposal that they went through the motions to bring before the elections. Remember what it was. It was a give-away to insurance companies, and they didn't even have the courage to allow amendments for people to actually have to vote up or down. It is easier to make a face-saving gesture knowing it would not go anywhere.

Sure, it made some investments in small businesses. It provided some employment relief, albeit at a significantly reduced level. But it also tied educational relief to forcing kids back into the classroom, even if it is an area where it was not safe to accommodate those children.

It failed to deliver on relief to State and local governments, which are continuing to try to provide essential services to their communities, as our government is in Vermont. It included nothing for Low Income Home Energy Assistance, or LIHEAP. And it was snowing in our State and in a lot of other northern States this weekend. It had no funding for mental health services. Can you imagine what is going on-- no funding for mental health service? There is no funding for nutrition assistance. There wasn't a dime for NIH research. And it didn't have a plan--a vigorous plan--or an investment in vaccination production and distribution.

It is one thing to say we have these supercold things on an airplane. Wonderful. When are you going to be able to bring it to our factories, our schools, our hospitals, and our senior citizens and actually vaccinate them?

So what was the legislation brought up here? It created a shield for corporate misconduct. And what it said is that my friends, the Republicans, are more keen to shield corporate cronies than to work on behalf of the American people. That is a sham. It is a shame, especially when you find that at least in one of those corporations that want a shield, the managers were betting on who would get COVID first.

In my home State of Vermont, our Governor and our State legislature, our mayors, and our town leaders across State have taken bold moves to slow the spread of COVID. Our Governor is Republican, and I am a Democrat. I praise him for what he did. I talked with him again today about the steps he has taken--difficult steps, hard steps, but steps to keep Vermonters safe. And these moves taken in my State of Vermont resulted in lower instances of the virus than anywhere else in the country. But as the Governor said and what I have said and everybody else has said, they have come with a cost. We have kept people safe, but not without a cost. Unemployment remains. Small businesses continue to struggle, if they are even able to stay in existence. That says nothing of the personal hardship families are facing across our small State

One elderly woman called my office. She expressed frustration with the President. She told may staff that she has only been able to visit her husband, who is in a medical rehab facility, a couple of times during this pandemic due to COVID restrictions. That is not an anecdote. That is a personal tragedy.

In Vermont, the State and local governments are worrying about how to clear the roads this winter if COVID hits the plow crews. Snow removal isn't a luxury in Vermont in the winter. It is a necessity. We sometimes have 7, 8, 9, 10 inches of snow overnight. But we expect our businesses and our schools to open that day. I don't know how many times, at home, on a snowy night, I wake at 4:30 in the morning as I hear the snowplows going by on the road, and I know I can get to my office a couple of hours later--and we have had nearly a foot of snow.

My staff spoke with one Vermont mother--not unusual. She is raising a son with autism. With school systems strained to their limits, special education services have been sharply reduced. That is going to have a lasting impact on these students, both educationally and socially.

For those who are facing challenges like addiction, depression, or mental health issues--and that can be any one of our States--or who were simply down on their luck before COVID hit earlier this year, access to vital resources like counseling or intervention has been made more complicated by COVID restrictions, often with tragic results.

I heard of one Vermonter who passed away alone in a motel room in Rutland in October. Battling mental health issues, he had become homeless just as COVID struck earlier this year. And due to the risks of the virus, family and friends were unable to take him into their homes. This isn't just a story. It is a man's life. And there are so many more people out there facing the same struggles.

We are seeing images of car lines at food banks stretching for miles, as an unprecedented wave of food insecurity is washing over our country. In my State alone, one in every four Vermonters are now food insecure. Before this pandemic, it was already an unacceptable 1 in 10.

We are asking children to learn without providing the necessary resources their teachers need. We are asking families to pay rent without their jobs and for people to deal with their chronic illnesses while our hospitals are still stretched to capacity. All of this is while an unacceptable amount of people are unsure how they will put food on the table through the end of the week in the wealthiest Nation on Earth. That is unconscionable.

I must say that the leadership across the aisle has got to bring up these bills. Stop stalling. You know, they say we only need a targeted approach, and they point to the stock market as proof. These people who are out of jobs aren't looking at the stock market. These people who can't feed their children aren't looking at the stock market. For these people whose rent has come due and they can't pay it, to them that is nonsense.

The economy is not going to recover until we have vanquished the virus. It is that simple. It is that basic. And people are suffering now. That is the cost of inaction--inaction on real, comprehensive, COVID relief legislation.

Now with our backs against the wall with a funding deadline looming, we are racing to accomplish what should have been done months ago: annual appropriations bills to keep our government running. We were ready on this side of the aisle to vote on those back in June and have a couple of amendments up or down. Republicans, in the majority, if they didn't like a Democratic amendment, they could vote it down. We could have done it back then. Now the deadline is this week, months later. We have to pass these bills before Congress adjourns this year so there is no disruption in our government, in our services during this difficult time in our country. It will only exacerbate the growing problems facing many Americans today. But our annual appropriations bills are no substitute for the significant investment we need to confront this national and international emergency. We need a comprehensive COVID relief bill.

It is time to get serious. Instead of flying off every weekend back home, stay here. Vote these things up or down. Bring up amendments on both sides of the aisle. Have an agreement on the amendments and vote them up or down, because time is wasted.

How many hours have we spent racing to confirm nomination after nomination at the expense of everything else, including dealing with the emergency of this pandemic, while COVID cases soar and more and more people succumb to this virus? How much more time will the Senate waste while American families and communities suffer? It is time for us to do our job. We are elected for 6-year terms. Let's stay here for 6 days during the week, if need be. Let's get it done. The American people are suffering enough. We shouldn't be adding to that strain by playing politics with these essential priorities

I am hearing from Vermonters every day, worried about unemployment benefits, their children's education, their health or for that of their loved ones, about food security, about keeping their homes and paying their bills.

The Senate, when it has been at its best, has been the conscience of the Nation. It is long past time that we started acting like the conscience of the Nation. It has been 256 days since the Senate took meaningful action on this COVID epidemic. We shouldn't wait a day longer. Let's set everything else aside. Let's have votes on these programs. Let's vote up or down. This Senator is ready to do that.

I see the distinguished leader on the floor.

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