In November, Americans voted to take the country in a much-needed new direction by electing Democrats to lead Congress. African Americans contributed a great deal to this victory for the American people. As a new era dawns in Washington, Senate Democrats renew our commitment to work with the African American community to advance a common-sense agenda that addresses the issues that matter most to them, and all Americans. The first ten Senate bills of the 110th Congress include legislation to raise the federal minimum wage, improve the Medicare prescription drug program, make college more affordable, fix America’s immigration system, strengthen and rebuild the military, and act on the 9/11 Commission Recommendations. As we move forward, Senate Democrats will continue to fight, as we did in the 109th Congress, to fund and improve education programs, expand access to health care, strengthen the middle class, protect voting rights, safeguard civil liberties, ensure an independent judiciary, defend human rights at home and abroad, and end our open-ended commitment in Iraq. With the African American community at our side, we can, and will, take the country in a new direction.
Raise the Federal Minimum Wage. Last year, Democrats promised to seek better pay for working Americans, starting by raising the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has not been increased since 1997. Since that time, the cost of living has increased and the purchasing power of the wage has eroded by over 20 percent. Today, a full-time federal minimum wage earner takes home only $10,712 per year, before taxes, which is almost $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.
On the first day of the 110th Congress, Democrats renewed our commitment to raise the minimum wage by introducing S.2, the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007. S.2 would increase the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour in three steps over two years. This raise would significantly benefit (directly and indirectly) nearly 13 million workers, or 10 percent of the workforce. Of those who would benefit, 16 percent are African American, more than 60 percent are women, and 18 percent are Latino Americans. Moreover, the parents of nearly six million children will receive a raise, helping them to better care for their families. In the 110th Congress, Democrats look forward to working with Republicans to pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act and are dedicated to helping American workers realize the dream of economic stability.
Fully Fund Domestic Programs. Since President Bush took office, Republicans have drastically reduced funding for key domestic programs. Most recently, in its 2007 Budget Request, the Administration recommended eliminating or cutting funding for over 140 programs, including Even Start, Head Start, the Perkins Loan program, Medicare, Medicaid, Small Business Administration programs, and the Community Development Block Grant program. These programs, many of which assist those in the African American community, are already operating on barebones budgets due to previous cuts; additional cuts would be devastating. Given their negative impact on women, seniors, racial and ethnic minorities, and low income Americans, many, including respected religious leaders, have described these recommendations, and past cuts, as immoral and irresponsible. Americans depend on these programs for their health, education, safety, and economic stability. In the 109th Congress, Senate Democrats fought to protect and restore funding to these vital programs and looked forward to working with Republicans to adequately fund the federal government for 2007. Disappointingly, the Senate Republican leadership chose to punt this responsibility. Now, in the 110th Congress, under Democratic leadership, Congress will meet its responsibilities head-on and work to fully fund the domestic programs that are important to all Americans.
Expand Educational Opportunities. Senate Democrats recognize that a quality education is the first step on the road to achieving the American dream of advancement and economic prosperity. In the 109th Congress, Democrats worked to provide African Americans access to the best education possible, from elementary school to college. Democratic Senators supported legislation that would have restored funding to Even Start, Head Start, Title I, GEAR UP and TRIO (college prep programs), vocational and adult education programs, and after-school programs, each of which specifically addresses the needs of disadvantaged children, teenagers, and adults.
Democrats also unanimously opposed a Republican-passed budget reconciliation bill that cut $12 billion in funding to the federal student loan program, a program which serves students from all economic backgrounds, including those from middle class families. Though that battle was lost last year, Senate Democrats are committed to restoring funding to and improving education programs in the 110th Congress. As one of the first bills, Senate Democrats introduced S.7, the College Opportunity Act of 2007, which would make a college education more affordable by increasing Pell Grants and providing more favorable student loans and other benefits.
Improve Access to Health Care. In the 109th Congress, Democrats worked with civil rights groups and the health care community to promote legislation that restored funding to existing health care programs and provided innovative solutions to public health problems. The agenda included expanding health insurance coverage, narrowing health disparities, promoting preventive care, and making prescription drugs more affordable. Though important to all Americans, these issues are of particular importance to the African American community which has been disproportionately affected by barriers to health insurance, health care, and education.
In the 110th Congress, Democrats are committed to ensuring that all Americans receive affordable and quality health care. On the first day of the new Congress, Senate Democrats introduced S.3, the Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Act of 2007, which would improve Medicare’s prescription drug benefit program by re-examining the provision of current law that prohibits the Secretary of Health and Human Services from negotiating drug prices under the Medicare drug program and exploring all tools available to ensure that all people with Medicare have access to the fairest prices for their medicines. Further, Democrats plan to evaluate the new program to ensure that it is actually working for seniors and people with disabilities and not leaving them confused and frustrated.
Reduce Unintended Pregnancies. While the abortion debate continues, Senate Democrats supported common sense measures in the 109th Congress aimed at promoting women’s health and reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. Democrats introduced legislation that would have increased access to family planning services, ended private insurance discrimination against contraception coverage, provided assistance to rape victims, promoted unbiased family planning education, and increased funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs. Further, Democratic Senators worked on a bill to improve access to contraception through Medicaid, affording low-income women the same opportunities as other women have to avoid unintended pregnancies. In the 110th Congress, Democrats will continue to address the special health and health care needs of women.
Provide Necessary Social Services. In the 109th Congress, Democrats supported initiatives that provide social services to Americans in the greatest need, including children and the elderly. Democrats fought for additional funding for child care services, which enable parents to return to work, and the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which allows low-income families to pay for home heating and cooling costs. Additionally, Congress, with the unanimous support of Democrats, reauthorized the Older Americans Act, which provides social services to the elderly, and the Child and Family Services Improvement Act, which enhances child welfare and assists children affected by drug abuse and addiction. In the 110th Congress, Democrats remain committed to providing a hand-up to our fellow Americans in their time of need.
Help Ensure Retirement Security. For years, Democrats have worked to strengthen Social Security and stopped Republican attempts to privatize the program and risk the financial security of American seniors. Social Security has protected millions of seniors from living in poverty and is the only source of income for one-in-three African Americans 65 and older. In the 110th Congress, Democrats will renew our promise to safeguard and strengthen the Social Security program.
Support and Encourage Small Business. During the 109th Congress, Democrats encouraged entrepreneurship in the African American community and worked to expand access to capital and resources for minority-owned businesses. African Americans own well over 1.2 million businesses in the natural states. Many of these businesses are small businesses that serve their local community and provide good-paying, stable jobs. Supporting these businesses is not only vital to the success of the African American community, it is vital to the success of our nation. Democrats are committed to continuing that support in the 110th Congress.
Rebuild the Gulf Coast Region. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast region, Senate Democrats worked to provide immediate relief to survivors, address the long-term challenges presented, and hold accountable those responsible for the tragic failures of the recovery effort. Last year, the Senate, with the support of Democrats, authorized hundreds of millions in additional funding for programs aimed at repairing houses damaged by the 2005 storm season. Further, Democrats fought to pass measures that provided health care coverage to survivors whose coverage was impacted by the administrative aftermath of the storm. As the years pass and media attention fades, one thing is certain, Democrats will remain focused on rebuilding the Gulf Coast region, addressing the economic disparities exposed by the storm, improving disaster response, and restoring the American people’s faith in government, especially in the African American community.
Safeguard the Right to Vote. In the 109th Congress, Senate Democrats worked to protect the right to vote for all Americans by ensuring the reauthorization and strengthening of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This year, Democrats will continue to safeguard the right to vote – the cornerstone of our democracy – and will reject unnecessary, de facto barriers to the ballot box.
Champion Civil Rights. For decades, Democrats have been the champion of civil rights forall Americans, especially for those burdened by overt and institutionalized racism and bigotry. In the 109th Congress, Democrats continued our efforts to advance and pass laws that expand equality and opportunity for African Americans in all areas of American life, including education, the economy, health care, and labor. Democrats also lead efforts to recognize and celebrate the many achievements of African Americans and to issue a long-overdue apology to the victims of lynching and their descendants. As we move into a new era of congressional leadership, African Americans can count on Democrats to continue to earn their vote and to be their voice in the halls of Congress.
Protect Civil Liberties. In the 109th Congress, Senate Democrats worked to safeguard the civil liberties of the American people, many of whom are rightly concerned about the legality and constitutionality of the Administration’s warrantless wiretapping and data-mining programs. In the 110th Congress, Democrats remain steadfast in our commitment to oversee, investigate, and, where necessary, work with the President to revise these programs in an effort to promote national security policies that are tough on terror and in-keeping with our laws and the Constitution.
Fight for a Fair and Independent Judiciary. Throughout the 109th Congress, Senate Democrats called on President Bush to appoint men and women to the Supreme Court and lower courts who will independently and fairly protect the rights of all Americans without regard to a narrow ideological agenda. In the 110th Congress, under Democratic leadership, Senate Democrats will remain vigilant in examining the record, including the civil rights record, of all judicial nominees.
Secure the Nation. Implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations has, and continues to be, a top priority for Senate Democrats. America’s fight against terrorism remains unfinished, and our country is not as secure as it should be. It is past time to craft a strategy and build the capabilities that will help us win the war on terror and defeat violent extremism. It is also vital that we advance a more effective approach for protecting our homeland and for addressing the threat of loose nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction. With the introduction of S.4, Improving America’s Security by Implementing Unfinished Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act, Democrats are taking the first step toward renewing the American people’s confidence that their government is making every effort to keep America safe and advance our national security objectives.
Support Troops and Veterans. In the 109th Congress, Senate Democrats worked to thank American troops and veterans for their service in defending our nation and its interests by giving them adequate equipment and resources while on the battlefield and providing them necessary medical, economic, and social services once they return home. African Americans make up nearly 20 percent of enlisted men and women, and there are more than 2.4 million African American veterans. Thus, troop readiness and veteran support are of great importance to African American families. On the first day of the 110th Congress,Democrats introduced S.8, the Rebuilding America’s Military Act, which would express the sense of Congress that Congress should: 1) restore and enhance the capabilities America needs to protect her people and her interests around the world; 2) enhance the readiness of the Armed Forces, including the reset of military equipment worn out in Iraq, and return unit combat readiness to the necessary levels; and 3) support the men and women in uniform, including the members of our National Guard and Reserve forces, through the provision of quality health care and enhanced educational assistance. S.8 is only the first of what will be many efforts made by Democrats to support American servicemen and women and their families in the 110th Congress.
Responsibly End the Iraq War. In the 110th Congress, Senate Democrats are committed to continuing their call on President Bush to change course in Iraq and bring the war to a successful close. Deploying additional forces to the region would be a tragic mistake and is not a way forward. President Bush stands nearly alone in this strategy. Military generals, the American people, and even many Republicans agree: The time has come to transition our military mission, pursue a political and diplomatic solution, responsibly redeploy our troops, and end our open-ended commitment in Iraq.
Protect International Human Rights. Though America is at war and faces numerous challenges at home, Senate Democrats have not neglected our duty to respond to international human rights crisis abroad. Last year, Democrats helped pass legislation that guaranteed the United States’ participation in ending the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. In 110th Congress, Democrats will continue and expand these efforts, thus honoring the international promise: “Never again.”