09.27.08

On The Continuing Resolution Senate Floor

MR. LEAHY.  Mr. President, we are about to vote on the Continuing Resolution to enable the Federal Government to continue functioning until March 6, 2009.   

I had hoped, as I know Chairman Byrd and Senator Cochran had, that we would have been permitted to debate and vote on the individual appropriations bills that the Appropriations Committee has reported.   

That was not to be, due to President Bush’s insistence that he would veto bills that exceed his arbitrary spending cap, and to certain Republican Senators who have made it virtually impossible to pass anything here without the necessary 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. 

A Continuing Resolution will result in hardship for many Federal agencies, and those hardships will be felt by the American people.  But as long as some here would prefer to be obstructionists rather than legislators, this is the only course available to us. 

Having said that, I commend Chairman Byrd and Senator Cochran for what they have done, because it is a bipartisan bill that reflects the constructive efforts of the leaders of both parties to do their best under difficult circumstances. 

There are several items within the jurisdiction of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee in this bill.  Senator Gregg and I, working with Congresswoman Lowey and Congressman Wolf, have ensured that vital programs continue and that necessary adjustments are made.   

For example, we have lifted the cap on administrative expenses for the State Department’s refugee and migration assistance programs.  We have reauthorized the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and we have provided authority to the Treasury Department to contribute up to $5 million to help Liberia extinguish its commercial debt.   

The bill also includes supplemental aid for Georgia, and it specifically prohibits the Administration from transferring funds from other vulnerable former Soviet and Eastern European countries.  We also provide funds to ensure continued Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasting to Georgia, Russia and the region during this time of heightened tensions. 

We provide additional funding to ensure the continued operations of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  And we provide emergency assistance for Haiti and otherCaribbean countries that were severely damaged by the recent hurricanes. 

We are all painfully aware that the 2008 hurricane season caused much loss of life and destruction of property in communities along the Gulf Coast of the United States.  And while the Federal Government is trying to help the victims of those disasters, including with additional appropriations for disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Ike in this bill, we sometimes forget that Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries suffered catastrophic destruction from Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike.   

In Haiti, the UN has reported that over 400 people have died due to the storms or storm-related causes, over 800,000 were severely affected, and some 150,000 were left homeless.  Cubareportedly suffered damage estimated at $5 billion.   

The U.S. government has provided $30 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Haiti, but no additional assistance was requested by the Administration.  That was inexplicable, and I am pleased that the Congress did not likewise decide to ignore that impoverished nation in which we have already invested so much.  This bill includes $100 million in emergency supplemental aid for hurricane relief and reconstruction for Haiti and other Caribbean countries.  

This assistance was included to address both the short and longer term needs that Haiti and its neighbors face.  We not only want to respond to immediate needs like potable water, food, shelter and medical care, we also want to rebuild infrastructure and stabilize hillsides to avoid future washouts and mudslides that have caused so much loss of life.  The U.S. Agency for International Development should use a portion of these funds to significantly enhance its efforts to address environmental vulnerabilities in key Haitian watersheds. 

We know that next year there will be more hurricanes.  For once, let us look beyond the immediate needs, and help Haiti and its neighbors strengthen basic infrastructure – bridges and roads – and help with reforestation, so that damage from future storms is less severe.    

We also know that Haiti was a destitute country before these latest hurricanes.   Its government is fragile; its economy is in shambles.  These devastating storms are capable of reversing whatever economic and social progress has been made in recent years, and could trigger chaos and panic and a repeat of the flotillas of fleeing desperate people that we saw a few years ago.   

Cuba also suffered widespread damage from the hurricanes, and I am disappointed that the Cuban Government has not been willing to accept offers of humanitarian aid from the United States.  I also regret that the Administration’s ill-conceived embargo against Cuba prevents the American people from helping the Cuban people in this time of need. This is an opportunity to cooperate with the Cuban Government for a purely humanitarian purpose.  We are long overdue for a new policy toward Cuba, as this disaster so graphically illustrates.   

Mr. President, I also want to mention the Reid-Byrd stimulus bill we voted on yesterday, which would have provided urgently needed funding for a wide range of domestic programs to help bolster this nation’s ailing economy.  These programs address critical needs of urban and rural working class people across America.   

Despite all the finger pointing and angry talk about how Washington is broken – often by those who did their utmost to game the system or who have themselves been in government for decades – this is exactly what the Congress should be doing.   

I commend Chairman Byrd and Senator Reid for this initiative.  After inheriting the largest surplus in this nation’s history, President Bush will leave a legacy of fiscal mismanagement and mile high deficits that dwarf anything in my 34 years in the Senate.  For an Administration that came into office piously claiming to be the guardians of responsible fiscal conservatism, when it comes to the economic security of middle class Americans this White House has proven to be incompetent, unprincipled and unaccountable.   

This Administration’s economic policies have been disastrous for the people of this country who are most dependent on Federal funding for schools, hospitals, police and fire departments, farms and businesses. 

The stimulus items in S. 3604, none of which were requested by the White House and which most of our Republican friends voted to defeat, would have helped prevent an already precarious economic situation that threatens the livelihoods and retirements of millions of Americans, from becoming worse.

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