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Kerry Challenges Bush, Republican Allies to Stop Obstructionism

by Pamela Leavey

The big news from the Senate today was the subpoena for Karl Rove issued by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The Hill reports, “Leahy issued the subpoenas, one to Rove and one to White House aide Scott Jennings, after consulting with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee’s ranking member.”

The Bush-Cheney White House continues to place great strains on our constitutional system of checks and balances,” Leahy added. “Not since the darkest days of the Nixon administration have we seen efforts to corrupt federal law enforcement for partisan political gain and such efforts to avoid accountability.”

John Kerry spoke on the Senate floor today on the subject of the obstructionism from the Bush Administration and the Republican party, highlighting the accomplishments of the new Democratic Majority in the 110th Congress.

Below are Kerry’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Mr. President, last November, was one of those rarest moments in the short history of our country and our democracy. Any political science student taking a freshman lecture course will hear how hard it is to remove entrenched congressional majorities. They know the statistics about how hard it is to defeat incumbents around here. It doesn’t happen often.

But sometimes it does happen. Just six times in our 230-year history has one party lost both houses of Congress. 2006 was the first time the Republican Party failed to win a single House, Senate, or Gubernatorial office previously held by a Democrat.

We Democrats have been there. In 1994, Democrats woke up to a landslide defeat some people thought would never come. It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always collegial, but we listened, and we learned – and together we reached across the aisle to balance the budget and reform welfare. We wrestled with why we’d lost and we wrestled with what we had to do to come together not just as a Party but as a country.

Evidently, some people still haven’t wrestled with what happened last November 7th.

Last November Americans were angry. They saw our young men and women in uniform paying the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq for a failed policy stuck on auto-pilot. They saw the number of Americans without health insurance skyrocket to 45 million—with more hardworking Americans joining them every day. They saw record-high oil prices and global climate change a reality denied and deferred, and no serious national effort to address them. They saw staggering corruption and no accountability for the way the peoples’ house had been turned into a refuge for the special interests.

Americans saw a politics and a party that was broken, and they rejected the stubbornness, cynicism, corruption and failed policies that had made Washington a dirty word. They voted for a change.

President Bush seemed to get the message the day after the 2006 election when he said: ”The message yesterday was clear: The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, and work together to address the challenges facing our nation.”

The President said he got the message. Well, is that what Republicans have done since then? Where are they six months after their worst electoral defeat in 50 years? What happened to the President’s post-election statements when the President’s actions—and those of the Republican minority in the Senate—tell such a very different story.

Before the dust had settled, before defeated Republicans had even cleaned out their offices, this President and his remaining allies in Congress had made a calculation—on issue after issue—that they would set out to stop everything from happening and then ask why it was that nothing was happening. This political calculation is as cynical as it is wrong.

They would rather spend their time attacking Harry Reid than attacking our problems.

Delay is no longer just a former Republican leader—it’s become a Republican way of life.

We’ve been busy debating progress in Iraq around here and measuring benchmarks. Well, pretty soon, the Iraqi government is going to wonder whether the Republican Caucus is going to meet any of its benchmarks!

For six months now, the Democratic majority has worked in good faith to deliver on our promises to the American people. Because of this Democratic Majority, minimum wage earners now make 70 cents an hour more than they did under a Republican Congress—and soon they’ll be making over $2 more. The longest streak without a raise in the history of the minimum wage has ended; but not before 4 months of Republican obstruction cost each minimum wage worker around $500 in earnings. We passed legislation to make college more affordable and cut interest rates in half for millions of Americans with student loans. We stood up to powerful special interests and raised the fuel efficiency of our cars by 10 miles per gallon. Twenty years had passed since Washington raised fuel standards but Democrats took on the special interests and got it passed. We passed funding for stem cell research. We passed the 9/11 Commission recommendations. We passed ethics and lobbying reforms. Just yesterday, we passed legislation that will fix many of the shortfalls in our care for injured troops and veterans and – over yet another White House veto threat — passed a 3.5% raise for members of the military.

Most importantly, we passed legislation demanding that this President face reality and begin redeploying troops from Iraq.

Regrettably, there is today an enormous gap between how many of those policies, aimed to help everyday Americans, enjoy majority support in the US Senate—and how many have actually been signed into law.

Why? Because the President and his allies in Congress have decided to use every means at their disposal to block these essential bills. They’ve vetoed and filibustered and killed bills in conference. They’ve wasted days and days with procedural motions and delays that do nothing more than waste time and squander the trust and patience of the American people.

Just look at what they’ve blocked:

Vetoed: a Senate bill demanding a new strategy in Iraq.

Vetoed: stem cell research—science that could prove crucial to cures for 100 million Americans with diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Diabetes.

And now another veto threatened on children’s health care—a veto threat on a bill the President hadn’t even read—because he was worried about the price tag. We’re talking about our children’s health, and the bill offered just $7 billion each year for uninsured children while we spend one-and-a-half times that much every month in Iraq.

And those are just the bills that made it to the President’s desk!

Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a bill to allow the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for 43 million Americans on Medicare.

Republicans are blocking the passage of a bill that would provide crucial funding for the intelligence community.

They’re blocking ethics bills that would mark the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate. They don’t have the votes to stop it, so they’ve pulled a procedural maneuver and refused to appoint conferees to hammer out the final details of the bill.

The Republicans are setting records for filibusters and obstruction. Too paraphrase Winston Churchill: “never, in the field of Senate legislation, was so much progress blocked for so many by so few.”

Actually, they’ve made history—thanks to Senate Republicans, LA no longer has the worst gridlock in America.

On issue after issue, these Republicans chose to filibuster – and to do so just two short years after they declared the filibuster—as then-Majority Leader Bill Frist said in late 2004—“nothing less than the tyranny of the minority.”

After expressing outrage at the mere hint of a Democratic filibuster last session, Republicans have suddenly become the principled champions of minority rights here in the Senate. After threatening “the nuclear option” when Democrats stood up to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge —they’ve introduced the filibuster to stop everyday business in the Senate. The rubber-stamp Republicans have now become the road block Republicans.

The party of Abraham Lincoln has become the party of red tape—vetoes, filibusters, any means necessary to deny the will of the majority of the Senate and the vast majority of the American people.

And if you don’t believe me? Just ask Republican leadership. In April, Trent Lott, the Minority Whip, told a reporter, “the strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail… and so far it’s working for us.”

I think the Senator is asking the wrong question. The question isn’t “Is it working for Republicans” or “Is it working for Democrats?” We all ought to be asking: “Is it working for the American people?”

Is it working for the millions of low-income children whose health care funding the President has threatened to veto? Is it making us safer when you block funding for our intelligence agencies? Is this obstructionist strategy working for the 12 million Americans forced to live in the shadows of American life while our borders stay broken? Is it working for the 554 soldiers who have died in Iraq since Republicans first blocked a measure to redeploy our troops back in February?

Instead of the Senate’s highest shared principles of consensus and bipartisan accomplishment, they’ve chosen the lowest common denominator—a zero-sum game in which they are willing to gamble the American people’s loss for Republican Party gain.

The Republican strategy seems to be to slash the tires of the Senate, and then wonder why we’re still stuck on the side of the road.

Now I want to be very clear about what I am criticizing here. I support the right of the minority to filibuster. In fact, I’ve done so myself.

But when filibustering is the whole strategy, specifically so that nothing gets done– that’s unacceptable. The rights of the minority in the Senate ought to be protected—but they ought to be used responsibly too.

Obstruction for obstruction’s sake is not in the best traditions of the Senate—it’s the worst kind of cynical political calculation.

So let me repeat: I support the right to filibuster. We Democrats don’t want to use the “nuclear option”—we just want to pass bills, supported by a majority in the Senate, that benefit the American people.

I would say to my Republican colleagues; there really is a better way. We can work together and do real good for the American people.

All of us know this is a uniquely challenging moment—we face new threats and hurdles that no generation has faced before. We ought to be working together to solve them. The only chance this Senate has to make a real contribution to history is to make a bipartisan contribution. That is the only way that this Senate will be great.

Some of the great legislative accomplishments in recent memory have come under mixed government, when both sides of the aisle are working together.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan saw that Social Security was in danger of going bankrupt, and placed a call to the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. They realized that at the end of the day, nobody would solve it if they didn’t. And so they got together and took the politics out of a tough, unpopular vote. That deal kept Social Security afloat. And neither man could’ve done it without the other.

We all know the limits of a politics of division, of partisan sectarianism. A politics of division can rush our country into war, but it can’t sustain our trust. A politics of division has no answer for 12 million undocumented workers in our houses and fields and factories– it has no answer for 45 million Americans with no health insurance—no answer for ice caps melting or a failed policy in Iraq.

The politics of division is bad for America—from the Parkinson’s patient to the undocumented immigrant to the soldier in Iraq: nobody is benefiting from Republican obstruction.

It’s also bad for the Senate. This has always been a deliberative body. But there’s nothing deliberative about partisan sabotage. There’s nothing deliberative about blind obstructionism.

The ongoing debate is about much more than Senate procedure. At its core is a debate, really, about where we are headed in our relationship with each other, Republicans and Democrats. All of us go home and hear from our constituents about how they’ve lost faith in Washington. All of us want to do right by the people who elected us and make life better for the American people.

Any Senator who has been here for a period of time has watched the decline of the quality of the exchange between both sides of the aisle in this institution. I’ve seen colleagues stand up against it. I remember when Sen. Gordon Smith, in the middle of a painful debate on Iraq, said “my soul cries out for something more dignified.”

I think a lot of Senators are concerned for the Senate. Voters want a debate over ideas, not a war of words. A choice of direction, not a clash of cloture votes. That stalemate is not what the Senate is renowned for. This is called the greatest deliberative body in the world, a place where people on both sides can find the common ground and get good things done.

Ultimately, we’re accountable to the American people, accountable for false promises, accountable for failure to address issues that we have promised to address, whether it’s energy independence or military families who lose their benefits, accountable for fiscal insanity, for record deficits, for mounting debts.

That is what the American people want us to debate with passion, not cloture votes or rules of the Senate—They want us to address the substance of those choices, and work together to find bipartisan answers to the real and complicated problems we face.

Most of all, we’re accountable for a good-faith effort to get things done around here. That’s why the voters sent us here, and that’s what we ought to be doing today.

A filibuster to stop all progress, then claim Democrats aren’t doing anything, is already a failed strategy. And it’s a failure because it doesn’t put the American people first, and the American people will hold of Party of Obstruction, the Republican Party, accountable.

Enough is enough.

UPDATE: Video of Kerry’s floor speech is available here.

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