Washington, DC–Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid today delivered the following floor remarks about Republican obstruction to the bipartisan pension bill waiting to go to conference.
Democrats are ready to proceed, but Republicans are holding up the bill by opposing a reasonable compromise on the number of senators who will be appointed to the conference committee.
Senator Reid’s remarks as prepared follow below.
Floor Remarks by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid
February 16, 2006
Mr. President. I don’t want to see the pension bill turned into a partisan issue because we have already done too much work together to advance this bill and it is to important to American workers and businesses.
Once the majority got serious about pension reform, consideration of this bill in the Senate has been a model of bipartisan cooperation. It would not have passed late last year without the Senate Democratic Caucus pushing for its consideration and working with Republicans to create a process where a bipartisan consensus could be forged and acted upon by the Senate in a reasonable amount of time.
I agree that there have been unnecessary delays with regard to this bill and regret that the full Senate could not act on this legislation until late last year. Consideration in the House and Senate was delayed last year for two reasons.
First the Administration’s pension proposal was narrowly focused on improving the solvency problems at the PBGC and failed to strike the necessary balance between improving pension funding and continuing the attractiveness of defined benefit pension plans to employers. It would have hastened the demise of defined benefit pension plans. Defined benefit pension plans, which today cover about one in five workers, provide workers greater retirement security because they provide a guaranteed stream of retirement income. The Administration proposal generated little support among Republicans but they were not willing to buck this White House on policy grounds and instead deferred action on this legislation.
Consideration of the bill was also delayed by a decision the House Republican Leadership made to hold pension reform hostage in order to advance their failed Social Security privatization plan. The House Republican Leadership as late as June of last year, were still delaying even committee consideration of the pension bill and wanted to couple pension reform with their proposal to privatize Social Security. It wasn’t fair to hold this important bill hostage in order to advance the politically unpopular social security privatization plan. The political message to all those who cared about fixing the pension system was – get behind our privatization plan for social security or you won’t get your pension bill.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on April 30, 2005:
House Republican leaders vowed Friday to push through Congress an overhaul not just of Social Security but “retirement security”, grabbing the baton President Bush handed them at his prime – time news conference and promising to run with it.
A savvy legislative tactician who thrives on complex issues, Thomas outlined a much broader legislative front than Bush has proposed. Thomas suggested changes to private savings and pensions outside of Social Security as well as to the 70 year old program, saying he would deliver a “retirement package for aging Americans.”
Thomas suggested that this wide-ranging proposal could splinter Democrats.
The Boston Globe reported on June 19, 2005:
Republicans in Congress want to turn aging baby boomer fears of pension defaults heightened by the well-publicized failure of United Airlines plan to their advantage with plans to link broad-based pension overhaul with elements of President Bush’s plan for personal Social Security accounts, a move GOP leaders hope will break a logjam on Capitol Hill.
The strategy reflects a realization by GOP leaders that their Democratic colleagues and even some Republicans are steadfastly opposed to private accounts funded by a portion of the Social Security payroll tax.
Republican leaders hope to build on momentum generated by the pension defaults and the shaky state of the federal agency that insures pensions to make a case that retirement security needs an across-the -board makeover and the type of personal Social Security accounts that Bush has talked about should be part of the solution.
Consequently, pension legislation languished in the Senate until the end of July. The inability of Senate Republicans on the Finance Committee to produce a majority in favor of Social Security privatization, pressure by Senate Democrats to move ahead separately on pension legislation and high profile bankruptcies in the airline industry created enough pressure to beak this logjam in the Senate. There was no filibuster or obstruction, just plain inaction by republicans.
Despite these delays, Senators Grassley, Enzi, Baucus and Kennedy, the Chairman and Ranking Minority Members of the Finance and HELP committees worked through committee and on the floor to draft and pass a bipartisan pensions bill. The Finance Committee reported its bill at the end of July. HELP reported its bill at the beginning of September. The Committees agreed on bipartisan basis to a compromise bill that merged the two approaches at the end of September.
The bill passed the full Senate on November 16th. At that time I commended Members on both sides for their diligent work in hammering out a consensus bill and again questioned why the Senate waited until November to address this important issue.
There is no good reason the Senate delayed until November of last year to pass this bill and there is no reason we can not negotiate in good faith to agree on a reasonable number of conferees in order to get this bill to conference today.
A report in this morning’s CQ Today suggests that outside interests are pushing for a small conference in order to prevent certain Senators on our side who have clashed with them on pension issues from participating in the Conference. I hope this is not the case and I hope that outside interests are not preventing us from going to conference on this bill. This legislation has reached this point because of the strong bipartisan support for moving it forward. It has not been a partisan process thus far and I do not expect the conference to be conducted that way no matter who gets appointed from either side.
I am afraid the Republican Majority has decided they want to create a political campaign issue and instead of trying to find a way around our present impasse. I hope we can continue to work in a bipartisan way in order to get this bill to conference and enacted into law.