Statement On S. 3297, “Advancing America’s Priorities Act”

Last week, I joined the Majority Leader in introducing S.3297, the “Advancing America’s Priorities Act.”  The majority leader selected three dozen legislative items from the jurisdiction of seven Senate Committees, including eight Judiciary Committee bills, for this effort.  These are all measures with bipartisan support and, we believe, the support of a strong bipartisan majority of the Senate.  I have moved several such bills through the Judiciary Committee only to be stymied by objection once on the Senate calendar.  All of the Judiciary bills have already passed the House with overwhelming support.  Each of these bills has the support of all Democratic Senators.  Each has been stalled on the Senate floor by Republican objection.  I hope that all Senators will now join us to support this important effort and finally pass legislation helpful to the American people that should have passed long ago by unanimous consent.

After more than seven years of failed policies from the Bush administration, the American people are suffering.  Americans are feeling the effects of a very real recession which has left them with fewer jobs and record high prices.  People are rightly worried about keeping their communities and their children safe from crime as well as terrorism.

Americans are looking to us in Congress to work to solve these vexing problems.  We had an opportunity in this Congress to come together across party lines to do the work of the American people.  Instead, regrettably some have chosen to obstruct our progress and stand in the way of legislation designed to help hard working Americans.

The Judiciary Committee has worked throughout this Congress to advance the priorities of Americans.  We have reported legislation to support local law enforcement to make our cities and towns safe from crime that has now gone back up after consistent declines, to protect our children from exploitation and poverty, to ensure the civil rights and voting rights of Americans, to combat fraud and corruption, and to keep us secure without sacrificing our values. 

Many pieces of legislation with broad bipartisan support that we have managed to move through the Judiciary Committee have then stalled on the Senate floor due to obstruction.  The majority leader has been forced to resort to extraordinary measures to try to pass these bills, which should have sailed through without opposition.  Some of these bills, including several important pieces of legislation that have been reported from the Judiciary Committee this Congress, have been incorporated by the majority leader into the “Advancing America’s Priorities Act.”  Congress should promptly pass this important legislation, which will help the American people.

One key bill in this package is the reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act.  It is astonishing that in the richest country in the world, millions of our young people face homelessness and the many dangers of life on the streets. 

When the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on this issue in April, we heard from Mark Redmond and Michael Hutchins of Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, Vermont.  They told us how much the Act is needed to help young people in Vermont and around the country.  Mr. Hutchins had been homeless himself as a young person and saw first hand how the programs this Act funds can help children turn their lives around and give back to their communities.

I also held a hearing in Rutland, Vermont, this winter on crime in small cities and towns, which emphad the need for programs to help young people in difficult circumstances.  The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act reauthorization will double the funding states like Vermont are guaranteed to receive for programs to benefit runaway and homeless young people.  This bill will help our young people, and we should pass it right away.

Another important piece of legislation included in this package is the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which I have been working with Senator Dodd, Congressman Lewis, and others to pass for years.  In 1955, the brutal murder of a 14-year-old African-American teenager named Emmett Till stirred the conscience of our country.  Unfortunately, no one has ever been punished for this tragic and brutal murder.  Last week, I met Simeon Wright, Emmett Till’s cousin, who was with Mr. Till on the horrible night he was kidnapped.  We must share Mr. Wright’s commitment to fighting for justice after so many years.

The Till bill would help law enforcement to finally track down those whose violent acts during a period of national turmoil remain unpunished.  Fifty-three years after Emmett Till’s murder, his family and the families of hundreds of other Americans who lost their lives in the fight for equal rights still await justice. 

This legislation provides necessary tools for our Federal government, in cooperation with state and local officials, to vigorously investigate and prosecute these cases.  By passing this legislation, we honor Emmett Till and all those who sacrificed their lives advancing civil rights.  It is disgraceful that it has taken us so long to take this basic step to honor their memories and pursue justice too long delayed.  It is incredible that some continue to obstruct these efforts.

The “Advancing America’s Priorities Act” also includes legislation to help law enforcement cope with mentally ill offenders, and to protect our children from the scourges of drugs, child pornography, and child exploitation. 

It seems particularly perverse that legislation meant to protect our children and grandchildren from the dangers of the modern world has become the subject of partisan obstructionism.  This legislative package includes the “PROTECT Our Children Act,” which Senator Biden has championed and which would streamline the government’s efforts to investigate and prevent the exploitation of children.  It also includes two separate measures that strengthen the laws against the despicable practice of child pornography.  I have worked hard with many of my colleagues to pass these and other child protection bills, and we should delay no longer passing them into law.The Effective Child Pornography Prosecution Act passed the House 409-0 last November.  The Enhancing the Effective Prosecution of Child Pornography provision passed the House 416-0 last November.  The PROTECT Our Children Act passed the House 415-2 last November.  The Drug Endangered Children Act passed the House last September 389-4.  All of these bills have been cleared by all Democratic Senators, and all are included in the bill being brought before the Senate by the majority leader.

Senator Coburn has now introduced a new bill, S. 3344, which combines several of the pieces of child protection legislation contained in the “Advancing America’s Priorities Act” package and other pre-existing legislation.  Senator Coburn has prevented many of these same bills from passing for many months.  He has chosen not to work with the Majority Leader on the “Advancing America’s Priorities Act” to secure passage of the many important bills contained within it.  He has also chosen not to work with the sponsors, Democratic and Republican, House and Senate, of the child protection bills he has co-opted, and he did not bother to attend a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing which squarely addressed one of those bills.

Instead, he has taken these bills, drafted and introduced by other Senators and House members, and without their input or permission, combined them and introduced them as his own legislation.  Moreover, he has combined them in a way that appears calculated to attract opposition, and he has included provisions that have not been carefully vetted or considered.  Where the Majority Leader has worked with many others in the Senate and House to collect important bills with bipartisan, bicameral support that can pass into law and increase protection for our children, Senator Coburn instead has appropriated the work of others in Congress in a way that is unfair and bound to fail.  That is not legislating.  It is more showboating and obstruction.  We have had too much of those tactics already. 

Sadly, obstruction through Republican holds is just one example of the ways some have chosen to hamper progress on so many issues in this Congress.  They have also boycotted meetings to consider legislation, used Senate rules to prevent hearings or cut them short, and filibustered more than 80 times.

Republicans boycotted the most recent business meeting of the Judiciary Committee thereby blocking the Committee from obtaining a quorum and considering important legislation.  At that meeting, the Committee was to consider a bipartisan juvenile justice bill, which reauthorized key programs aimed at making our communities safer and keeping our children out of the criminal justice system; bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which would strengthen our efforts to stop the abhorrent practice of human trafficking around the world; and other matters. 

They have threatened to boycott again this week. That would prevent action on the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission, a resolution to honor national historically Black colleges and universities, and other important bipartisan measures. 

We have seen all manners of obstructionism since the beginning of this Congress, with a minority of Republican members using filibuster after filibuster to thwart the will of the majority of the Senate from doing the business of the American people.  Republican filibusters prevented Senate majorities from passing the climate change bill; the Employee Free Choice Act; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; the DC Voting Rights Act; the Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection, and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007; the Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008; the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act of 2008; the Consumer-First Energy Act; and the Warm in Winter and Cool in Summer Act, to bring much needed relief to poor families who struggle to heat and cool their homes in a time of soaring gas prices.

These are critical pieces of legislation to address urgent priorities like the energy crisis, the environment, voting rights, health care, and fair wages for working men and women.  All of them had a support of the majority of the Senate.  And all were blocked by a minority of Republican Senators bent on preventing us from making progress.  Republicans have now filibustered more than 80 pieces of legislation in this Congress.  More than 80.  We can only imagine what we could have accomplished in this Congress with cooperation rather than obstruction.

The list goes on.  Republican objection has blocked legislation to ensure that law enforcement officers can obtain bulletproof vests, to strengthen efforts to investigate and prosecute public corruption, to give much needed resources to state and local law enforcement, to break the grip of a cartel on oil prices, to prohibit war profiteering, to train prosecutors, and to teach children to use the internet safely, just to name some of the examples.  And those are just examples of legislation reported by the Judiciary Committee that has been obstructed.  Last week I made statements delineating a dozen and a half bills in addition to those included by the Majority Leader in S.3297, the “Advancing America’s Priorities Act.”  Other Committees have similar lists.

This long list of priorities unaddressed is even longer if we include the many important bills President Bush has vetoed since the beginning of this Congress.  This list includes legislation to fund stem cell research to fight debilitating and deadly diseases, to extend and expand the successful State Children's Health Insurance Program that would have provided health insurance to more of the millions of American children without it, to set a timetable for bringing American troops home from the disastrous war in Iraq, and to ban waterboarding and help restore America as a beacon for the rule of law. 

This is not about partisan posturing.  The American people are suffering, and it is time for Congress to start working to make their lives better.  Time is running short in this Congress.  It is past time to end the partisan gamesmanship and idiosyncratic objections and make progress on behalf of the American people.  It is time for us to get to work and do what we can to improve the lives of Americans.  That is what I have been trying to do throughout this Congress.  The majority leader, with the “Advancing America’s Priorities Act,” has given us a chance to take a small but significant step in the right direction.  I hope, after 18 months of unnecessary obstruction, all Senators are finally ready to join us in doing the work of the American people.  

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