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Government Funding

Floor Speech

Date: Dec. 21, 2020
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, I was going to speak in a few minutes, but things have been filed now appropriately.

Let me speak in my role not only as the Senator from Vermont but as the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. We have had months of delay and painstaking negotiations. Sometimes those negotiations have gone all weekend long, until midnight, 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. But this afternoon, we will have before us a spending package. It includes all 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2021. It also includes a vitally important COVID relief package. Those are the numbers and figures, but let's talk about what it means.

It provides funding for programs that are critically important to the American people, and I would like to see it swiftly passed and on the President's desk. After all, it is not like we are suddenly rushing things. We are 2 months and 20 days into the fiscal year. It would be absolutely outrageous if we delayed it further.

As vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I worked hard to reach agreement on this Omnibus appropriations bill that will fund the Federal government through the remainder of the fiscal year, without relying on a long-term continuing resolution, as sometimes has been done in the past. That was not an easy task.

The budget caps are very lean this year, and we had to stay within those. They provided a less than 1-percent increase in nondefense discretionary spending, and that is to meet the needs of a nation that is reeling from the worst public health pandemic in a century.

Under normal circumstances, that would be difficult, but it is made even more difficult because of the global health and economic crisis we face. Notwithstanding the tight top line, we have produced a bill that provides important increases in programs that serve the American people and invest in our economy.

I think the bill finally drives a stake through the heart of the administration's effort to substantially diminish the role of government in helping Americans in need and in promoting economic growth.

We all know that President Trump's first budget proposed to substantially diminish the role of government. He wanted to cut nondefense spending by 9 percent in fiscal 2018 and 18 percent by 2021. He wanted to completely eliminate programs millions of Americans rely on every day. For 4 years, in Congress, leading Republicans and Democrats came together and we rejected these ill-conceived, arbitrary, and reckless cuts.

This year, I will say to my colleagues--those who have worked hard with us on the Democratic side and on the Republican side and who came together on this, and, especially, those who worked with us in the Appropriations Committee--we are going to do the same in rejecting these arbitrary cuts.

Now, this agreement is the product of weeks of hard work and compromise. This is not the bill I would have written on my own. It includes things I support and, I must admit, some things I oppose. But that is often the way legislation is. No one Senator gets everything that he or she wants. But together, we can get things that the country wants, and on balance, passage of this bill is unquestionably in the interest of the American people.

Let me talk about some of those things. The omnibus spending bill includes increases for education and early childhood programs. It provides more funding for substance abuse and mental health services. I think every one of us knows, from what we hear from back home, that these services are of utmost importance in these extremely difficult times. It provides more for food assistance programs both here and abroad--the assistance that is desperately needed as many families struggle to survive during this pandemic. And it includes increases for housing and homelessness services to help those who are the most vulnerable. These are all programs that my fellow Democrats fought hard to include.

I support this agreement. As I said, I appreciate those who have worked with us weekends, holidays, and after midnight on so many nights. But I am deeply disappointed that Congress is so unforgivably late in completing our work. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why this bill could not have been finished months ago.

I thank Chairman Shelby, Chairwoman Lowey, and Ranking Member Granger for their cooperation and partnership. We worked through our differences on the Omnibus spending bill. As the Big 4, we realized we had to balance the needs and requests of all of our Members. I urge all Members to support it.

That is for the Omnibus.

Now, before us today is a much delayed COVID relief package. It, too, is the product of bipartisan compromise, and while it falls short in some critical areas, I support the agreement. It is also long overdue. The American people have been waiting for help for far too long, and I am worried our Republican leadership took a wait-and-see approach. We were ready to go on this last summer, but for 270 days Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate Republicans have blocked every reasonable effort to provide desperately needed relief, even as Members of their party said quietly: We wish we could do something.

Now, this package is far from perfect, but time is not on our side. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let's look at what the good things are in here. It provides much needed investments in our economy with support for small businesses--small businesses like those in my State of Vermont or those in the State of the Presiding Officer or anybody else here. It provides relief for unemployed workers by extending unemployment benefits into March. It makes investments in vaccine production and distribution. It supports health providers, educators and farmers and transportation providers. It provides critical investments to expand broadband in rural and low-income areas, access which is vitally important during these difficult times, when many schools and many businesses are operating remotely.

It includes another round of direct payments to millions of Americans who are still struggling to pay their mortgage or their rent and feed their families and heat their homes and meet their monthly obligations. Many can't do all those things. Now they will at least get help.

I urged that this bill also includes $4 billion in emergency funding for the Gavi Alliance. Let me explain that. And I appreciate those Senators who supported me on that money, the emergency funding for Gavi. This is for the procurement and delivery of vaccines to countries around the world whose rudimentary public health systems are being overwhelmed by COVID-19, whose economies are in free fall due to the virus. We cannot defeat this global pandemic, and international travel and Congress will not recover without fighting the virus overseas.

Just as we did during the Obama administration when we were faced with Ebola, the administration and the Congress came together and said: Sure, we will protect here in the United States, but we will also work at getting rid of it in other countries because if it flourishes in another country, it is an airplane trip away from our country.

I support the package, but I want to be very clear. This COVID bill is only a first step. We have to do more. Vermonters and the American people need more.

The direct payments included in this package are a fraction of what we should have provided, given the dire financial situation of millions of people across this Nation. People are hungry. Unemployment continues to plague our economies. We should have acted months ago, but let's at least act on this today. Families are struggling to pay their rent and put food on their table.

I will continue to fight for more. I made hundreds of phone calls from my own State of Vermont. I talked to people whom I never met, but I know that they are people who are typical of Vermonters, but they are typical of people in any one of the States we represent. I hear the fear in their voice. I hear the concern they have. In the middle of winter, as snow is coming down, do we heat or do we eat? How many meals should we, as parents, go without so we can make sure our children are fed? How are children going to do school if they are hungry?

Look at State and local governments. Around the country, they have laid off over 1.3 million teachers, first responders, and other employees since March. They need our help. Sometimes there are things that we don't talk about. Rates of spousal abuse and child abuse have increased during the crisis. We should be providing funds for the Violence Against Women Act and child abuse prevention grants, just as Republicans and Democrats joined me a few years ago when I greatly expanded--with the help of Senator Mike Crapo in a bipartisan fashion-- the Violence Against Women Act and the things we did. None of us, even at that time, could have conceived of the crisis we are facing now in the country.

In my State, Vermonters are facing the coldest, darkest months of winter. They are struggling to heat their homes. And families need help paying their utility bills through the LIHEAP program, and we will help that program. When it is 20 degrees below zero and you have had 15 inches of snow overnight, you can't really look at this as an abstract thing and say: Golly, maybe we should have a program to heat our home. You are going to die if you don't.

And we are finally making progress in delivering a vaccine to the American people, but the pandemic is far from over. We know that, notwithstanding a lot of the things said about this is on its way and everybody is going to get one, there are huge gaps in all parts of our country and getting the vaccine to them.

I will be the first at the negotiating table to work with President Biden and the 117th Congress to address the many needs that remain unmet in this bill.

The House will send this bill over to us. I would urge all Members to vote on it when it comes here.

Again, I have to look back at the history of this body. I have to look at the people who have worked so hard on so many things over the years. I know that we have people in both parties who are trying to address the needs of our country.

I don't say this with pleasure but with sadness, I am the dean of the United States Senate. Next year, I will start my 47th year in this body. I have seen us come together at a time when it is needed, but then I see one of the greatest needs I have seen in my years in the Senate that we ignored for month after month after month. All of this could have been done in July or August or September or October or November, not at the very last minute.

And why didn't we? We had to take time. We had to take time breaking long tradition--all of the promises that have been given by the other side. We had to take time to move one special interest-supported judge after another to lifetime jobs, but they will be paid well. They don't have to worry about paying their bills.

In all 50 of our States, we had people being tossed out of their homes, tossed out of their apartments, lost their jobs, unable to feed their children, or the fear and anxiety a parent has in telling a child: No, I don't know what tomorrow will be like. I don't know what next month will be like. We will pray, and we will hope, but I don't know.

We could have stopped that anxiety in June, when the House bill came over here, or in July or in August or September and October and November. We are doing some of it now.

But I ask every Senator to search their conscience. Wouldn't it have been better if all of us from both sides did something and said: Put everything else aside, put aside all the special interest nominations. Put that aside, and let's care for the one special interest we should have and that is the American people--care for those men and women who elected us from either party, who rely on us.

I have never seen this country so split apart or having such fear except for a privileged few, and maybe that includes us. I am not here to represent me. I am here to represent over 600,000 Vermonters and fulfill my oath to the whole country, 320 million Americans. What we should be doing is saying that never again will we let these kind of partisan politics slow us and not allow us to go forward.

We know, and it is easy to say now, we should have taken the bill that came from the House of Representatives last summer and brought it up on the floor. If anybody didn't like it, file an amendment to change it. Vote for it or vote against it. Vote for or against the amendments you might bring up. That is what we usually do. I know how to vote. I voted over 16,000 times. Why don't we just vote? If we had done that this summer, it may not be a perfect bill, but it would be better than where we are. Every Member--Republican and Democratic alike--would have had a chance to bring up their amendment. They could have made their case, either win or lose. We go to the committee conference; we have the bill done.

I say all this not to just be a technocrat of what needs to be done but to say this is how you reflect the needs of the American people.

We faced the threat of Ebola in the last administration. We stood together, both parties. We helped the countries that were suffering from Ebola and, in doing so, we protected the United States of America, and we helped those in this country who might face it. That was a shining moment. That was a moment of America at its best. This is not.

I do hope we can do better next year. I know as senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, I will fight to do better. But I also use my voice and what example I might give as dean of the Senate to say to both parties: Here is what we do.

I think of such examples as Bob Dole, one of the best leaders this Senate had, a Republican. He came together with Senator Pat Moynihan, one of the most brilliant Senators I served with, a Democrat. And that Republican and Democrat came together and set aside their philosophical differences, cared for the country, and saved Social Security.

I could give so many more examples. That was a Senate that acted as a conscience of the Nation, and how did they do that? They appealed to our conscience. I just use that one example because people said that they couldn't possibly do the difficult things necessary to save Social Security. Democrats wouldn't give this; Republicans wouldn't give that. Instead, you had two Senators of conscience who said: We can do it. Let's do it. Let's use our leadership and our conscience to bring others together. And that distinguished the Republican Senator Robert Dole, and that distinguished the Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and they came together and we saved Social Security.

Those of us in the Senate in both parties who voted for the final package knew we were going to have to vote for some things that would be unpopular with constituencies. But instead of worrying about special interests or single-issue constituencies, we worried about the men and women of our States and what they would face if we didn't come together. And that is what we voted for, and we saved it.

I sometimes say that Senators are merely constitutional impediments to their staffs, but we could not do the work we do without the staff.

I want to thank the staff who worked tirelessly to produce the bill. By ``tirelessly,'' I mean until after midnight many nights and weekends and holidays. When the rest the Senate had gone home, they were still working. I know them. Much of the time, I would be on the phone with them. I would be working with them and, finally, I would say: It is so late. Everybody should go to bed. When I woke up in the morning, there would be an email sent to me at 3 o'clock or 4 o'clock in the morning because they kept on working.

So I thank Chuck Kieffer, Chanda Betourney, Jessica Berry, Dianne Nellor, Jean Taol Eisen, Erik Raven, Doug Clapp, Ellen Murray, Scott Nance, Rachael Taylor, Alex Keenan, Michelle Dominguez, Tim Rieser, Dabney Hegg, and all the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee on both bills. I would thank Chairman Shelby's staff: Shannon Hines, Jonathan Graffeo, and David Adkins.

Normally, at this time, Senators might just put these names in the Record, but I wanted to say them out loud, on the floor, because they should hear their names said out loud and know how much I appreciate what they have done, not just for the U.S. Senate but for the United States of America.