Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on "War in Iraq and Tornados in Tennessee"

Posted on February 26, 2008

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, it is suggested we should not be discussing Iraq. Well, the last time I checked, the majority leader sets the agenda. The majority leader brought up Iraq, and if he wants to bring up Iraq, we can discuss Iraq. I too am wondering why it is being brought up because we have other important issues we could be dealing with. For example, I wish to see the Congress turn its attention to a pro-growth economic package, a discussion of how we can help this economy move. I think once we have that opportunity to debate, we will have a good, principled exchange of ideas here. My suspicion is that from the other side of the aisle we will hear a number of expensive spending proposals, and from our side of the aisle we will hear a different agenda, an agenda that says we want a bigger, bolder, broader pro-growth economic agenda so we can move this economy in a more positive direction. Part of that would have to do with lower tax rates for individuals, such as to permanently reduce the dividend, capital gains, and estate tax rates to 15 percent. Part of it would be to lower corporate tax rates, reducing the capital gains tax for corporations from 35 percent to 25 percent so our companies in America can compete in the world. Part of it would be indexing the capital gains tax for inflation so that double taxation of capital would at least reflect inflation. Part of it would be something that many Member s of this Chamber have talked about for a long time: a simpler, flatter tax, giving taxpayers the option of filing a 1-page return with a 17-percent flat tax rate. I wish to see--and I plan to introduce within the next few days--legislation that would make permanent the expensing provisions for small business that we passed in a bipartisan way before the recess in the pro-growth package to help stimulate the economy. Those provisions increased the small business expensing limits and allowed a 50 percent bonus depreciation. Now it is not unusual to hear Republicans talking about lower tax rates. But that is only a part of--a part of--what we would propose if our debate were here for a pro-growth economic package. I wish to see us bring up Senator Isakson's proposal, which would create a $5,000-a-year, 3-year tax credit for buyers of foreclosed o r new homes to get buyers back in the marketplace. I wish to see us begin to more seriously implement the America COMPETES Act. That is part of a pro-growth agenda as well. We worked hard in this Chamber across party lines for 2 years to advance legislation to increase our nation's competitiveness in the global economy. The President made a priority of it. He said we ought to have an 18 percent increase in funding for the physical sciences in this year's budget. We should talk about that and make a commitment to make room in the budget for that so we can double funding in the physical sciences over the next 5 years so we can keep our brainpower advantage so our jobs will not go overseas. As one Senator, I want to see that we continue to in-source brainpower for new jobs by pinning a green card on the lapel of every foreign student who earns a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics from a U.S. university, and who is legally here and passes a background check. We could have a good de bate here in the Chamber about whether it is a good idea to do that. I think it is. We have 570,000-something foreign students here. Why would we attract the brightest people in the world to study here and make them promise to go home and create new jobs in India and in China? Let's create them here. We could make the research and development tax credit permanent. We could have a full-day debate about how to improve our schools. I see the Senator from New Hampshire is in the Chamber; he was one of t he principal authors of the No Child Left Behind Act. There is a provision in that legislation which is called the Teacher Incentive Fund. It tackles one of the most difficult problems in American education. How do you reward outstanding teaching? Well, you cannot do it from Washington. But you can fund it from Washington, so in Philadelphia and in Phoenix and in Memphis school leaders and teachers are part of plans where you pay them more for leading well and pay them more for teaching well. I d id that in Tennessee in 1983 when I was Governor. Mr. President, 10,000 teachers went up a career ladder. As soon as I left, its opponents killed it. But teacher after teacher comes back to me saying they wish it were still there. Every time we have a hearing on education, we hear the need to keep and attract outstanding teachers. We could talk about and debate--and I am sure we would debate--Pell Grants for Kids. Why not give vouchers to poor kids so they can go to some of the schools that people with money go to? Why not go ahead and implement the provisions in the America COMPETES Act for adding 10,000 math and science teachers, and give a million and a half more low-income children the opportunity to take Advanced Placement tests? If we want to talk about growing the economy, we can do that. We could talk about stopping runaway lawsuits and enacting small business health plans. We can talk about lower energy costs. We can talk about lowering the cost of Government. Or we can talk about Iraq. Mr. President, I would say that last year I thought I had succeeded in doing something that no one else had been able to do. I unified President Bush and Senator Reid on Iraq in their opposition to our Iraq Study Group legislation. But my point is that while I have been one on this side of the aisle who wishes the President had taken a different tact, I think in all honesty we are talking about how things have changed in Iraq. If we look at the Iraq Study Group recommendations, what were they? First, transition of mission. Let's shift our military forces out of direct combat and into roles of supporting, training, and equipping Iraqi forces as security conditions on the ground permit. That is happening. It is happening province by province. That wasn't foreseen quite as clearly by the authors of the Iraq Study Group report. I am not sure any of us saw it. General Petraeus was wise enough to see it. He is helping Iraq have a transition of mission of U.S. forces from mainly combat to mainly support, training, and equipping. But the Iraq Study Group itself, while it set a goal for that shift of mission, explicitly rejected the idea of a deadline. As the Senator from Alabama said earlier, it explicitly rejected the idea of a deadline. The second recommendation of the Iraq Study Group was that we maintain a long term, but diminishing, presence in Iraq, with an emphasis on diminishing. That is happening. Troops are coming out instead of troops going in. Now, they are not coming out as rapidly as many had hoped, but they are coming out. They are coming out in the spirit of the Iraq Study Group report--not as rapidly as the report originally recommended, but as quickly as conditions on the ground will now permit. The limited mission the Iraq Study Group envisioned, in addition to supporting Iraqi forces, includes protection of coalition forces, counter terrorism operations, border security, intelligence-sharing, supporting provisional reconstruction teams, and search and rescue. Finally, the Iraq Study Group urged that we undertake a new diplomatic offensive, that we step up regional and diplomatic efforts to press others in the region to help Iraq succeed. Well, that has been happening. It may not be happening as rapidly as everyone in the Chamber would like, but these efforts are well underway, with a more expansive United Nations mission. But higher profile efforts are also needed, including by the President. So I would not stand here and say that the Iraq Study Group legislation that Senator Salazar and I introduced--supported by eight Democrats and eight Republicans, and which we unsuccessfully urged the President and this body to adopt a year ago--I would not say we should do that today. But I would say as one Senator that I believe that is the direction in which we are moving, and the Iraq Study Group has made a significant contribution to that effort. I, frankly, believe the bipartisan approach here by those 16 Senators also helped move us in that direction. Now, Senator Feingold's proposal and the Iraq Study Group recommendations are at odds. In the first place, the Feingold legislation sets a 120-day deadline for changing the mission of our forces in Iraq and requiring a massive withdrawal. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group specifically opposed such a deadline, saying that transition should be, as I said, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground. The Feingold amendment and the Iraq Study Group differ in another way: the continuing mission for the troops. My reading of the Feingold bill says that it would prevent American troops from being embedded with Iraqi forces, from securing Iraqi borders, from fighting terrorists who aren't known to be affiliated with al-Qaida, and performing various intelligence operations. Those missions are all supported by the Iraq Study Group. It is part of our long term, but diminishing, role in Iraq. As has been noted today, this is not a new subject for the Senate. We have had perhaps three dozen votes on Iraq last year. Perhaps we should have that many votes. What else is more important than Iraq? But at some point, we have come to a conclusion, and I think on the issue of the Feingold bill, this body, by a large majority, has already expressed itself. There were four previous votes on similar--not exactly the same but similar--funding cut and withdrawal proposals offered by Senator Feingold. Those were on December 18, 2007, and 71 Senators voted against that Feingold amendment. Then, on October 3, 2007, 68 Senators voted against that Feingold amendment. Then, on September 20, 2007, 70 Senators voted against that Feingold amendment. Then, on May 16, 2007, 67 Senators voted against that Feingold amendment. We have 1 00 Senators, and 49 of us are Republicans. Not all of us agree on Iraq. So that meant that a substantial number of Democrats consistently voted against those Feingold amendments. So I know Senator Feingold is sincere and passionate in his beliefs, but it would seem to me that four votes are enough on this subject, and--as important as it is--we could turn our attention to other issues. But if the majority leader, for whatever reason, feels a need to bring this issue to the floor of the Senate, then w e are ready to talk about it. We are not all of one mind here, even on the Republican side. We have some on this side of the aisle who said when the Iraq Study Group report came out that it was a recipe for surrender. I disagreed with that and said so publicly and said so privately to the President. He was good enough to hear me out one-on-one. I find him to be a very good listener. I, for one, am enormously impressed with General Petraeus's counter insurgency strategy. I, like most of us, have h ad a chance to go to Iraq--in my case, two times to Iraq, and three times to Kuwait. I have had a chance last year in August to visit with General Petraeus and General Odierno and to go into the outskirts of Baghdad and to see an area where our soldiers were in camp and to have dinner with a group of sheiks. One of the sheiks' sons had been murdered in his front yard, and they were fed up with the al-Qaida terrorists and were convinced that because the American forces were there, that the Iraqis could risk their lives by teaming with the American forces to run the terrorists out of town, which in many places they have done. I still think it would have been better for our troops and it would send a clear message to the enemy if we had, as an administration and as a Congress, embraced the Iraq Study Group Report because it said basically what we are do ing today. It said we need to change direction. We need to, No. 1, shift our mission, which we are doing. It specifically embraced the idea of a surge, if that was necessary. It rejected the idea of a specific deadline and said it should be subject to developments on the ground. It said we should identify a long-term but diminishing presence in Iraq, which we have been doing as a country. The Iraq Study Group Report said also that we should step up our diplomatic efforts. Its goal--not its binding effect but its goal--was that all of its recommendations could be accomplished more rapidly than has been done. That is true. But at the same time, it recognized that it was all subject to security developments on the ground. So when we have a success--or it may be more accurate to say a series of small successes in a difficult arena such as Iraq--when we have military leadership such as General Petraeus and his team who have stuck to a new coun ter in sur gency strategy--at least new to Iraq that took our forces out of the Green Zone and placed them on the outskirts--when we have done that, then I think we ought to recognize that for what it is. I am glad to have this opportunity to talk about Iraq and the progress we are making there. I hope we can make more there. I would like for more of our Tennesseans to come home. In the National Guard alone, we have had more than 10,000 Tennesseans in Iraq, some for a year, some twice, some three times. They are our uncles, and they are our aunts. They are our neighbors, our deputy sheriffs, the mayor of Lexington, the postmaster from Robbinsville. They have mortgages. They have kids. Ninety have died, 90 Tennesseans in this period of time. So it is good to have this discussion. If the majority leader wants to bring it up, we should. But I think at the same time we ought to recognize it for what it is. We have changed direction. The troops are coming out instead of going in. The mission is shifting. The role is diminishing. It will be there for a long time, and the diplomatic effort is stepped up. If that is succeeding, then our country is succeeding, and we can spend more time on other issues. TORNADOES IN TENNESSEE Now, if I may--I see the Senator from Florida may be wanting to speak, and if he would indulge me another 3 or 4 minutes, I wish to discuss what has happened in Tennessee with tornadoes in the last couple of weeks. On the night of February 5, tornadoes began to hit Memphis at about 6 o'clock. While many people were watching the Tennessee-Florida basketball game safely in their homes, a tornado touched down in Macon County, TN, and stayed on the ground for 21 miles. More than two dozen people were killed. Prior to that, it hit in Jackson, TN, nearly wiping out Union University. Fortunately, at Union University, president David Dockery had conducted drills, and the students had enough warning to get to the safest places in their dormitories, and no one was killed there. That was not by accident; it was because of good leadership. It was also because of a good early-warning system. The point of my remarks tonight is that we sometimes hear in connection with disasters--particularly since Hurricane Katrina--that our disaster response system and our emergency response system isn't as good as it should be. I can't speak to every case, but over the last 30 years, as Governor for some years and in the Cabinet for 2 years and now in the Senate, I have seen a lot of disasters and tragedies. I have never seen an example where the lo cal officials, the Governor of the State, and the President of the United States acted more rapidly, more effectively, or more humanely. The Governor, Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, was on the scene immediately. He gathered all of his information--not too rapidly because he knows it needs to be accurate--and he had it to President Bush on the night of February 7 at about 7 p.m. By 10 p.m. President Bush had approved it--had called the Governor and approved individual and public assistance for five of the hardest hit counties. The Governor then went on to commit that the State would pay half of the local share of the disaster aid that needs to be paid. I went with the President and Congressman Gordon and Senator Corker to the Macon County area on the Friday after it hit. I visited Jackson last week. What I found was that FEMA has already received 3,700 applications from 14 approved counties. FEMA has distributed $1.9 million in 14 counties. The first small business loan was approved on the day I was there. I visited those whose homes were blown away. It is a terrifying thought that in just 60 seconds everything is demolished. You don't know where to hide. But I also visited with the emergency responding team and a couple whose home was hit in Jackson, TN. They were told via the television at 6 o'clock that the tornado was coming, and they were told 10 minutes before it hit their house that if they lived on the north side of the interstate, the tornado would be there in 10 minutes, and it was. That was the kind of early warning system they had. And in Macon County, a tornado that hit at 9:30 at night has been anticipated. By midnight, FEMA personnel from Atlanta were at the Tennessee border at Chattanooga. And by 7 a.m. the next morning, disaster recovery centers were set up in Macon County. I wish to express my admiration, firs t, for the local officials for doing a first-rate job; second, to FEMA and TEMA, the Tennessee emergency management professionals who were there on the spot; third, to Governor Bredesen who could not have done a better, more thorough, more sensitive job; and fourth, to the President and the Washington officials who were on the ball. It is important occasionally to find the good and praise it in Government service, and in this case, I believe--well, I know--every single person I talked with in the west Tennessee area or the Macon County area felt as if the Governor, the President, and the local officials were doing everything they could to be helpful, and they were deeply grateful for it. I yield the floor.