Washington, DC—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the floor of the U.S. Senate today outlined the Democrats’ agenda for the new work period:
“Before I begin my remarks on the Fall calendar, I would like to say a few words about two of our most distinguished colleagues – Senators John Warner and Edward Kennedy. Last week, Senator Warner announced that he will not seek re-election when his term ends in 2008. Senator Warner’s career in public service began at the age of seventeen, when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After an honorable discharge, he interrupted his law school studies to join the Marine Corps during the Korean War, rising to the rank of Captain. What great patriotism that takes.
“When he returned home, Senator Warner was appointed Undersecretary of the Navy, and later became Secretary, before beginning his five terms here in the Senate. His work on the Armed Services Committee, the Intelligence Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee speaks for itself. I was fortunate enough to see that devotion firsthand from my very first day in the Senate, when I began serving with Senator Warner on the EPW Committee. He is a true gentleman and has served the people of Virginia and our nation with distinction for nearly three decades. Senator Warner’s indelible impact on this institution will not be forgotten, though his warmth and friendship will be sorely missed.
“I would also like to a few words about another one of our most distinguished colleagues, Senator Kennedy. All of us recall that the day we closed session before the August recess, we were here late casting votes. In our rush to close session, a milestone occurred that went unremarked upon at the time: Senator Kennedy cast his 15,000th roll call vote. These few words could not begin to fully honor Senator Kennedy’s 45 years of lifting up Americans who are underserved and overlooked. His record speaking out for civil rights, education, working people, senior citizens and people with disabilities, is unparalleled. I so value his wisdom, leadership and most of all, friendship.
“August is a time for many of us to leave Washington and spend time listening to and reconnecting with our friends, neighbors and constituents back home. It’s a chance for us to ignore the pundits and hear from the people. I traveled this past month to every corner of Nevada, and the message I heard was clear:
- Nevadans want us to do something about the high cost of energy and start reversing the damage that nonrenewable fuels are causing our environment.
- They want us to help them find affordable health care solutions, so that low-income kids can get regular checkups, and senior citizens can pay for their medicine.
- They want us to fight the skyrocketing costs of a college education.
- And above all, Nevadans want us to finally bring the war in Iraq to its responsible end. They want us to take our brave troops out of another country’s intractable civil war – so that we can rebuild and refocus our military on the grave and growing challenges we face throughout the world.
“These concerns are, of course, not unique to Nevada. I know that my colleagues are hearing the same ones in every corner of our country. I want my friends in Nevada and all Americans to know this: We hear you. We share your concerns and your sense of urgency. And we are working every day to reach those goals.
“When this new Congress began in January, we knew that the challenges that lay ahead were great and the expectations were even greater. We started the year with an ambitious agenda by introducing 10 bills on our very first day. Now, as we begin our busy Fall calendar, we have made progress on nearly all of them.
“Coming into the previous work period, we had already sent to the President:
- The first raise in the federal minimum wage in ten years, which is now law.
- The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, after they had been pushed aside for years.
- The toughest ethics and lobbying reform in our nation’s history.
- A bill to give the hope of stem cell research to millions of Americans who suffer, and we will soon attempt to once again override the President’s veto.
- Disaster relief for the Gulf Coast, Western wildfires and farmers who suffered drought.
- Funds to provide our troops and National Guard with the equipment they need, like Mine Resistant Combat Vehicles, to do their jobs safely.
- A bill to finally hold the Administration accountable on Iraq with real benchmarks for progress.
- We had also passed a balanced budget that restores fiscal discipline and cuts taxes for working people.
- And we passed a pay raise and better health care for our troops who are being asked to shoulder a larger burden than ever before.
“This past work period, we added to that list of accomplishments by:
- Passing a comprehensive energy bill that will provide relief for skyrocketing gas and heating costs, and finally begin the process of weaning our country’s addiction to foreign oil.
- Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which will give Americans the largest expansion of student financial aid since the GI Bill.
- And beginning debate on a Defense Authorization bill that will make critical investments to address troop readiness problems in the military caused by the President’s mismanagement of our Armed Forces.
“These legislative accomplishments will make a real difference for working families, students, senior citizens and those who protect us at home and abroad. Our progress makes one thing clear: When we put partisanship aside, we can do great things for the American people. But when partisanship divides us, our work suffers.
“For all our success so far this year, we could have done more – if not for some Republicans who have sought to block our progress at all costs:
- We could have reduced the cost of prescription drugs, but Republicans filibustered the bill.
- We could have passed comprehensive immigration reform, but the Republican leadership said no.
- We could have ensured that our troops receive sufficient rest and time at home between deployments, but once again, some Republicans blocked us.
“The minority has forced 42 cloture votes already this year. Many of them on legislation that wasn’t even controversial. Our progress has been in spite of those efforts. When we have worked together, across the aisle, the record speaks for itself. We know it can be done, because we have done it. This Fall, I will reach out to my Republican friends on every piece of legislation. I hope and expect that the minority will reciprocate so that we can move beyond hyper-partisanship and obstruction – to keep making the kind of progress that the American people demand.
“We must do this, because the issues we will now confront deserve nothing less. The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported out 11 of the twelve annual appropriations bills. We plan to devote considerable time this work period to those bills. In the next two weeks, it is my hope that the Senate can complete action on three appropriations bills – Military Construction/Veterans Health, Foreign Operations, and Transportation/Treasury/Housing. Each of these bills was reported out of committee unanimously or nearly unanimously and I hope that bipartisan cooperation continues on the Senate floor.
“We must send the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Higher Educations Reconciliation bills to the President’s desk, and then face possible veto overrides if the President follows through on his veto threats.
“And above all, every day, we must continue to fight for a sensible, responsible path out of Iraq in order to restore America’s national security. Later this month, President Bush will issue the report on the state of the war that Congress required of him. We continue to hope that he will use this report as an opportunity to finally do the right thing and begin to change the core U.S. mission and begin reducing U.S. forces. We will receive this report with an open mind. We will consider the White House findings carefully and thoughtfully.
“But we must remember that the President’s report comes after more than four years of war – after more than 3,700 troops lost and tens of thousands more injured, and after American taxpayers have foot a bill of nearly $500 billion. President Bush will send General Petraeus to testify. There is not one member of this body who does not respect General Petraeus. He is a good man and a good soldier. But the President can’t hide behind his generals.
“This is George Bush’s war, and he is responsible for the mistakes and missteps that leave our troops mired in a civil war with no end in sight. According to the President when he set forth his escalation policy, the purpose of the troop increase was to give the Iraqis space and safety to forge political progress – to build a sustainable government and to provide for their own security. None of this has happened.
“We need only look as far as today’s headline in the Los Angeles Times – “Troop Buildup Fails to Reconcile Iraq” – or today’s GAO report, which tells us that the President’s strategy has failed to achieve 15 of 18 key benchmarks. Sectarian strife is deepening and violence is shifting. Contrary to the President’s assertions, Iraq’s leaders have not honored the sacrifices of our troops by taking meaningful steps toward building a country that can stand on its own two feet. That is not our troops’ fault, nor is it a problem they can solve. It is an Iraqi political problem, not a U.S. military problem.
“We can’t continue to sacrifice American lives, deplete our treasury and weaken our national security in pursuit of a goal that the Iraqi people themselves show no interest in achieving. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda is resurgent, and we all know that Osama bin Laden remains at large.
“And there are countless stories that highlight the human toll this war is taking. That toll hit Nevada hard last week, when we heard the heartbreaking story of Army Private First Class Travis Virgadamo of Las Vegas. Travis loved his country and loved serving in the military. He saw it as his calling. Yet after months of serving in Iraq – as he described it, “being ordered into houses without knowing what was behind strangers’ doors…walking along roadsides fearing the next step could trigger lethal explosives” – the horrors were more than Travis could take. He sought therapy and mental health care while overseas, but last week, the military informed his family that he had taken his own life. Travis was just 19 years old.
“Last year, the Veterans’ Affairs Department reported that more than 56,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had been diagnosed with mental illness. We have heard countless examples of our troops receiving inadequate mental health care, and in many cases, being sent back to battle.
“My heart goes out to Private Virgadamo’s family, and to the families of all those who have sacrificed so much. We owe them a change of course. Many of my Republican friends have long held September as the month for a policy change in Iraq. Those who opposed our earlier efforts asked for time and patience to let the war continue.
“The calendar has now changed. We have reached September. We will soon hear from the President and his generals, but we know already that political progress has failed. Now it’s time for our Republican colleagues to join with us – to stand with our troops and the American people – to responsibly end the war.
“I began with some words of tribute for two of our most distinguished colleagues, Senators Warner and Kennedy. One Democrat, one Republican. Both firmly committed to progress through bipartisanship, as we have seen this year. All of us appreciated the Herculean efforts of Senator Kennedy – working with Democrats and Republicans alike – to keep the immigration bill moving forward long after many had left it for dead. So many of us appreciate Senator Warner’s courage to stand up to a President of his own party – and reach across the aisle – to reach a responsible end to the war.
“As we tackle the challenges ahead, the outstanding work of these two Senators ought to be our compass. I am hopeful and confident that all 100 of us will follow their lead to keep moving America forward.”