Prepared Remarks of Democratic Leader Harry Reid:
Mr. President, I thank President Bush for making this request. It contains important money for the victims of Katrina, and I will support it. However, before we vote, my colleagues should know that this bill is seriously flawed in two ways.
First, all the money for the relief effort – most of the money in the bill — goes to FEMA. After what we all have witnessed the past week or so, is there anyone in America who feels we should continue to rely exclusively on FEMA to head the federal government’s response to this tragedy?
Second, the President’s request fails to make the substantive changes in law necessary to address many of the critical needs of our survivors – notably health care, housing, education and financial relief. Victims need these types of assistance now, but this bill makes no such changes. It only spends more money.
Again, let me make it clear, despite these flaws, my Democratic colleagues and I will support this supplemental. We simply must do everything we can for victims of Katrina.
That said, I’d like to remind the Senate that we cannot rest with the passage of this supplemental. There is much more work we need to do, and there are dozens of steps the Senate should take quickly to get victims the relief they need.
Along with Senator Landrieu and many of my colleagues, today I introduced legislation, the Katrina Emergency Relief Act, that makes the changes in law we need to give survivors the relief they need now.
For instance, take health care. The survivors of Hurricane Katrina need health coverage. Some of them were already uninsured. Others may have had insurance, but they’ve been relocated thousands of miles from home and lost their insurance when they lost their jobs.
Here’s how the Senate can help:
We can ease enrollment into Medicaid programs, so that survivors get Medicaid benefits without regard to assets and income. These people don’t have the necessary documents to prove their residency or their need, but we can make all that irrelevant by easing enrollment.
And we can also assure states that the federal government will pick up the tab for any health care services they provide survivors.
Then there’s housing: FEMA has estimated that up to one million people may be left homeless by the Katrina disaster and require housing assistance. Many will lack the standard paperwork to apply for government assistance and will face steep rents as affordable housing is already limited for many. Yet FEMA is ill-equipped to handle the housing needs of Katrina’s victims, many of whom have scattered around the country and will need housing for an extended period.
Here’s how the Senate can help:
We can direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide housing vouchers that survivors can use anywhere to get out of shelters and into a home. We’ve all seen the images of families sleeping in the Astrodome or here at the Armory or in Nevada and other states across the country. We ought to help them get out off of the cots and into a real home.
How about education? The Katrina disaster struck just as school was set to begin. Hundred of thousands of students have lost their classrooms, and have no where to go. No student should miss school.
Here’s how the Senate can help.
We can give schools $2,500 for reach displaced student they enroll. This will help off-set their costs, and encourage them to open their doors.
We can also help school districts get the other resources they need to deal with bigger classes – - help with new teachers, text books, materials and counselors they will need.
And finally, financial assistance/ Not only have hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their homes, they have also lost their jobs and their livelihoods. It will take time for Americans to get back on their feet.
Here’s how the Senate can help.
We can temporarily forgive victims their financial obligations to the federal government, things like student loans and small business loans.
We can make sure people don’t lose their homes just because they lost their jobs to Katrina and can’t make a payment.
We can extend unemployment insurance for these victims who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. The jobless rate is expected to increase to 25 percent or higher in the region, and we need to make sure unemployment benefits are available.
We can make it easier for victims to use their own savings to get back on their feet. Some may have individual retirement accounts that they could draw from at this time, and we can make it easy for them to access this money by suspending any taxes on such withdrawals.
Mr. President, all of these are steps we could take today to help survivors.
My colleagues and I had hoped the Senate would act on these items promptly, and we introduced four amendments this afternoon to the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill.
But rather than voting on our efforts, I understand the Majority plans to raise procedural objections. It’s unfortunate. Victims of Katrina don’t care about Senate procedures. They just know they need health care, housing and schools for their kids….not more federal red-tape.
My colleagues and I will continue to fight for these items in the days ahead. People who’ve lost their homes and everything they’ve ever worked for don’t care if they get “Democratic relief” or “Republican relief.” They just want relief – - and they want it now.
Mr. President, in the days ahead, victims of Katrina and the American people will want something in addition to short term relief, and I think it’s important that we begin to address it
Survivors and the American people will want at least two things: a long-term plan to rebuild the Gulf Coast and answers about why the government failed them.
To rebuild the Gulf Coast, we need to think about a Marshall Plan to reconstruct the Gulf Region – - a plan on-par with the one we used to rebuild Europe after World War II. This region is rich in culture and steeped in our history. It must be rebuilt, and we need a grand plan to do it.
And while we rebuild the Gulf Coast, we must make sure we don’t do it on the backs of America’s workers. I understand the President has decided to suspend Davis/Bacon. I strongly object to this move. This is time to work together to restore lives, not to play partisan politics.
Mr. President, we will also owe victims and the American people answers as to why the federal government failed when Gulf Coast residents needed their government the most.
Following 9/11, preparedness for national emergencies was supposed to be a priority for this government. Americans were made to believe the government was doing everything it could to prepare for terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and other national crises.
Katrina makes it clear this government is not ready. When we faced a similar situation after September 11, Democrats and Republicans came together and established an independent, blue-ribbon Commission.
Republicans now apparently want a different approach. Yesterday, the Republicans unveiled their proposal to investigate the events of last week. They called it a “Bicameral Committee.” While I lack details, I do not support what I know about this committee. Victims deserve answers independent of politics – - the kind of answers only an independent commission can deliver.