Floor Statement of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid
Remarks as prepared:
It’s now been well over a week since Hurricane Katrina battered our Gulf Coast, and the world became aware of the horrible flooding in New Orleans. We’ve all seen the terrible images of families struggling to survive and prayed for their safety as they’ve sought refuge in cities far from their own.
Late or not, we’ve seen the President and Cabinet agencies respond. We’ve seen the House of Representatives meet and debate relief. Along the Gulf Coast, we’ve seen state and local officials spring to action. But here in the Senate – outside the $10.5 billion package we passed last Thursday to help FEMA conduct emergency operations – all we’ve done is pass a resolution.
Yesterday, I came to the floor and commended the Majority leader for clearing the Senate calendar of the estate tax, so that we could focus on the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But here we are, 24 hours later, and we’ve yet to take a meaningful vote in the Senate that will make a difference for survivors of Katrina.
These are American families – some of them the poorest and neediest among us. They’re sleeping on cots in places like the Astrodome or DC Armory or in Nevada and many other states across the nation. They don’t have a change of clothes. No jobs. No money. Nothing. They’re counting on us, but this Senate is sitting on its hands.
I know the Majority Leader and everyone in this body cares about these victims. Senator Frist has visited the Gulf Coast. He’s treated men and women with injuries. He’s seen the devastation and what needs to be done. He wants to help as much as anyone, and he’s spoken eloquently about it here.
And, I understand that today we will recess out of respect for the funeral of Chief Justice Rehnquist. It is the right thing to do. I considered the Chief Justice a friend, and it’s proper that we would pause to pay respect to his family. But we cannot forget our obligation to the tens of thousands families in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas and Texas who are counting on us in their time of need.
These families need more than resolutions and kind words from us. They need relief and they need it now. We will be judged by what we deliver and how quickly we deliver.
When the Senate comes back into session on Thursday, the Majority Leader has determined that the first item of business will be the Commerce, Science and Justice Appropriations bill. This bill is important, but it addresses only a very small portion of the agencies that need to be involved in providing relief. In addition, it’s an appropriations bill, which means Senators will be prevented from offering legislative proposals that could provide real relief to the survivors.
This bill gives $21 billion to the Justice Department, which will help some with law enforcement. It gives $621 million to the Small Business Administration, which will help get loans to small businesses. But it does not do enough. It does nothing to help victims get health care, housing, education or the financial relief they need now.
We’re facing a national crisis. Americans are suffering. We must adjust our priorities. If there is an immediate lesson to draw from the federal government’s failures last week, it is that there is no time to wait. Families are counting on us, and we owe it to them to do everything we can to help.
Why don’t we go to the Defense Authorization Bill? Legislative proposals to help the survivors can be added to this bill. We can use it to take a look at FEMA, which has become a toothless tiger, and to appoint an Independent Commission to look into the response, as Senator Clinton has proposed. We can also use this bill to get our veterans – hundreds of thousands of whom have been affected by Katrina – the relief they need, and to help families struggling with gas prices that have skyrocketed in the Hurricane’s wake.
And why don’t we get to the Energy and Water bill to Conference? This bill will help rebuild the infrastructure that has been destroyed along the Gulf Coast. It includes billions for the Army Corps of Engineers and flood control, and it should be a priority in this Senate.
We also need to revisit the budget. As I’ve said many times, I met with ministers when the budget was on the Floor last spring, and they called it “immoral.” Well, in the wake of this national tragedy, it’s even more of an embarrassment. It contains $70 Billion in tax breaks, many for the rich. It has $35 billion in spending cuts – cuts to Medicaid, student loans and food stamps among others.
These are cuts to the very programs survivors of Katrina need, and they shouldn’t be cut. Times have changed. Our priorities have changed, and we need to adjust our priorities and get to work.
America can do better. The Senate can do better. FEMA and other government agencies failed these people with inaction once. The Senate must not do the same. It’s time we got to work.