Speeches & Floor Statements

Colloquy Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) - Republican Amendments

Posted on October 28, 2009

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I enjoyed the comments of the distinguished Senator from Rhode Island. He is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent Members of the Senate. I always enjoy listening to him. But I have a different characterization of what we are doing in the Senate. He pointed out that the majority leader believed it was necessary to cut off debate 82 times; that was a record. I do not believe I would be bragging about that. This is the Senate. What that means is the majority leader has said to the minority: Be quiet. Don't debate. We don't want your amendments -- 82 times. The House of Representatives is the place where we have the train that runs through according to the majority. That is not the Senate. Senator Byrd, the senior Democrat, the senior Senator, has written four big volumes about the history of this body and what is unique about the Senate. Our Founders said: We will have one popular body where there is one man one vote, one woman one vote, and whoever has the majority the train runs through. So whatever Speaker Pelosi wants, Speaker Pelosi gets. That was the view of the Founders more than two centuries ago. But we are going to have a little bit different Senate. Do you know what the idea of the Founders was, the Founders, whom we revere and admire? Unlimited debate. Unlimited amendment. That is the Senate. That is the only reason we have it. There is no need for the Senate if we do not have that. When Alexis de Tocqueville, the young Frenchman, came to this country in the 1830s and wandered around our Nation and wrote that perceptive book, "Democracy in America," which every serious student of the American Constitution in our country discovers, he saw one thing he worried most about in the new American democracy, and it was, in his words, the tyranny of the majority. He said the Senate was the one institution which helped work against the tyranny of the majority. So this is the body that protects the minority view. It does slow things down. In the case we are talking about, unemployment compensation, we have already voted to limit debate on unemployment compensation. That is what we are talking about today. I see the Republican whip on the Senate floor. As I recall, the vote to limit debate on unemployment compensation was overwhelmingly bipartisan, was it not? Mr. KYL. Mr. President, could I just interrupt? Mr. ALEXANDER. Of course. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Arizona. Mr. KYL. Thank you. To answer my colleague quickly, I think the vote was 87 to 13, or in that general range. Almost all Republicans voted to conclude the unemployment compensation legislation by getting to the process where we could offer amendments and then have a vote on the final passage. But I would ask my colleague from Tennessee, have Republicans been afforded the opportunity to offer five amendments? How about four amendments, three, two, one? Obviously not. Have Republicans been afforded the opportunity to offer any amendments, I would ask my colleague? Then I have a follow-up question. Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the Senator from Arizona and I be allowed to engage in a colloquy on this subject. The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered. Mr. ALEXANDER. I believe the answer is no. If I am not mistaken -- if I am not mistaken -- I say to my friend from Arizona, the Democratic side has a nongermane amendment they would like the Senate to bring up, and I believe the Republican side has a nongermane amendment we would like to bring up. They are saying: Because we are in the majority, we are going to run over you. That is the tyranny of the majority. That is what Alexis de Tocqueville warned against, and we are saying: No, you are not. We are elected from Arizona and Tennessee to represent our constituents. If you are going to run over us, we might as well go home. Mr. KYL. Mr. President, if I could further inquire of my colleague, is it not your understanding that of all of the issues the American people are concerned about today, the No. 1 issue is jobs and economic recovery -- how do they get back to work? When our friends from the Democratic side say: We need to hurry up and extend unemployment compensation, my guess is the vote on that will be overwhelming. I will support it. I am sure my colleague will support it. That is not the question. The question is, Instead of just continuing to extend unemployment compensation for all of the increased number of Americans who are out of work, what are we going to do to put people back to work? Then I have one other question to ask my colleague. I may not be correct that it is the No. 1 issue in public opinion surveys, but I recall it is pretty high on the list. Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I think the Senator is exactly right, and we on the Republican side -- and I believe some Democrats do as well -- have some proposals about how to restart housing. We would like to deal with that on this issue as well. But the Senator is exactly correct. The No. 1 issue for most Americans is what to do about jobs. Unemployment is about at the rate of 10 percent. Mr. KYL. Mr. President, if I could further inquire, the first thing we want to do is find out how much this unemployment extension is going to cost. I think the number is about $2.4 billion. The second thing we want to find out is, how is it going to be paid for? I understand it is proposed to be paid for by a continuation of a tax on payroll; that is to say, employers and employees will have to pay a certain percentage of the employee's wage to the Federal Government in order to provide funds to those who are unemployed. Some of us are concerned if our goal is to put people back to work, to allow companies to hire more people, that the worst thing we would want to do is impose another tax on hiring, another tax on employees or, to be totally accurate, to extend the existing tax on workers, on payroll, as a way of paying for the extension of unemployment benefits. Perhaps a better way to pay for that would be, for example, to take the $2.4 billion out of unspent and unobligated stimulus funds, which was $780-some billion, half of which is not going to be spent for the next 8 years -- or over the period of the next 8 years. One of the amendments we wanted to offer was not just to extend unemployment benefits but to pay for it in a way that would not harm job creation, as is contemplated under the bill. Am I correct in that? Mr. ALEXANDER. The Senator from Arizona is correct. And as a member of the Finance Committee, he has once again come up with a very good suggestion. He understands better than some appear to that if we add taxes to payrolls, it makes it more likely that payrolls will be smaller or there will be fewer jobs. So if we can find a way to pay for unemployment compensation that does not add to the debt and does not add to payroll taxes, that is worth taking a little time to do. Mr. KYL. I know my colleague wanted to talk about student loans, so I will close my point here. The whole point, when colleagues and friends of ours on the other side of the aisle say: Well, Republicans are just trying to slow this down; the answer is: No, we could have been done with this bill 24 hours ago. All that was necessary was a simple agreement between the majority leader and the minority leader that the minority would get a couple of amendments. One of them is an amendment to say, Let's pay for this worthy cause of extending unemployment benefits in a more sensible way with respect to job creation; at least in a way that isn't going to cost us jobs, to prevent employers from hiring more people. Let's pay for it by taking some of the unobligated stimulus funds that won't be spent for another 6 or 7 years and achieve our goal in that way. But no, no agreement to do that. The majority says no amendments, take it or leave it. If you ask for amendments, then you are slowing the process down and somehow standing in the way of those who are unemployed. The benefits haven't run out yet. We are going to pass this before the benefits run out. That is not the question. You can either come down here and make a pitch to people to make it sound as though you are trying to help them and the other side is not, or you can try to do things the right way. I submit that on this, the right way is to pay for it in a way that doesn't cost jobs because our goal here ought to be to put people back to work. I would also say that if the majority were serious about getting this legislation completed, they would not in the middle of the process have parachuted onto the floor a bill that around here was called the "doc fix" -- a most unfortunate term -- a bill that was going to add $250 billion to our debt in relationship to the reimbursement of physicians who provide Medicare benefits. The minority didn't do that. Republicans didn't do that. My point is that a week ago we could have had an agreement to conclude work on the extension of unemployment benefits that would have taken maybe 24 hours, maybe 48 at the most. We would have had the benefit of voting on a couple of amendments, which I think are very well taken, directly relating to the subject, germane amendments; but for some reason, the majority has not seen fit to permit that to happen. So as friends around the country consider what is the reason for this being slowed down, I hope there would be a better appreciation of the reason why this has been delayed. A, we didn't ask for the delay. The delay was occasioned by action by the majority leader by, first, going to another bill; and secondly, by filing cloture; and third, by not agreeing to allow the minority to have a couple of amendments. Finally, I would say I wish we did have that opportunity because I think when we do support this, it will be a better bill by not only taking care of those who find themselves without a job today but helping to find a way to get them back to work, and that ought to be our primary goal. I thank my colleague for yielding. Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, if the Senator from Arizona has another minute, I thank him for coming to the floor because he has pointed out the value of taking a little time on these important pieces of legislation. He has suggested a way we can not only extend unemployment compensation benefits, which almost all of us want to do, but a way to pay for it in a way that creates more jobs rather than fewer. There is another example. The Senator from Rhode Island was complaining about the 82 times that the majority leader has invoked cloture, and I was saying that was nothing to brag about. We should be complaining about that, because that is 82 times he has cut us off. In general, he has allowed during this year a fair amount of amendments, a fair amount of debate. But take the health care bill for a moment. It takes a little time. Over in the House I hear they may run that through in 3 days. That is not going to happen here. When we have time to stop and think about it -- the same thing happens on this floor that happened last week. We had our first vote on health care and the question was, Shall we raise the debt 1/4 trillion dollars?, and 13 Democrats joined all Republicans and said no. We have another important vote coming up soon that might be called a procedural vote but, in fact, is a vote for or against a bill. Mr. KYL. Mr. President, if I could comment on that, that is another very important point. I think Americans very much want to engage in a debate about health care reform. I think Republicans are anxious to engage in that debate here on the Senate floor. But, first you have to have a bill. You can't just have a debate on the floor; you have to have a bill you are debating. We are told there is a bill. It was written in the majority leader's office with some people from the White House and a couple of other Democratic Senators, and then the bill was sent to the Congressional Budget Office to be scored, for a cost estimate to be developed. I know several people have said, Could we see the bill? Could you share that bill so the American people can see what we are talking about here? So far, no luck. No bill. If we are talking about getting this debate going on health care, one would think that we would get the bill written, we would get it out there, we would all get a chance to read it, our constituents would have a chance to understand what is in it and, by the way, know how much it costs. I ask my colleague from Tennessee, are Republicans doing anything to slow down the bill or making it public or understanding it? Mr. ALEXANDER. We are here every day. We want to do what the Senator from Arizona said. We want to read the bill and we want to know what it costs because when we hear about it -- and the Senator from Arizona was a part of the Finance Committee that developed one bill; I was a part of the HELP Committee that developed another bill. What we hear is that instead of lowering premiums, which is the idea for 250 million Americans, it will probably raise premiums; that it will raise taxes; that it will cut Medicare by $450 billion. Now we learn from the majority leader this week that there will be a new government-run insurance program. We are going to put the government in the insurance business with a "State opt-out," whatever that might mean. I am a former Governor. I am wondering, Does that mean we can opt out of the taxes as well as the benefits? So the Senator from Arizona is right. We are here. We are ready to go to work. We are anxious to read the bill, but it is being written behind closed doors. Mr. KYL. Mr. President, I would say to my colleague, the minority leader yesterday in a press conference talked about this bill that has been written. I am not actually even sure it has been written. Obviously, we have never seen it. All the majority leader has chosen to talk about publicly is the so-called public option. So maybe that one feature of it has been written. My point is it isn't Republicans who are slowing anything down. As far as this health care debate is concerned, I think we are very anxious to engage in that debate now. As my colleague from Tennessee pointed out, we are not going to be in debate on a bill which is going to raise taxes, raise premiums, cut benefits under Medicare, increase the deficit, reduce the quality of our health care, and I am not going to vote to begin work on that kind of a bill, but I certainly will vote to begin work on a bill which meets the primary objective. There are two primary things we needed to try to resolve. One is to make sure we could get insurance to about 18 million Americans who can't afford it and don't have it, and the other is to keep premiums from going up. As the Senator from Tennessee pointed out, under the legislation that came out of the Finance Committee and out of the House of Representatives, insurance premiums go up more than they otherwise would have -- according to who? The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan entity that we all ask to analyze these things. There are many other studies that came to the same conclusion. So I am not anxious to begin working on a bill that does those things, but so far we haven't seen any bill. Mr. ALEXANDER. If I could ask one more question of the Senator from Arizona, who is giving a lot of time to this discussion. I thought this health care debate was supposed to be about reducing costs -- the cost to the government and the cost to people buying premiums. Whatever happened to that goal? Mr. KYL. Well, I would say to my colleague, something happened to it on the way to the Senate, I guess. Because, first, the bill is going to cost somewhere between $800 billion and $1 trillion. That is obviously money that isn't being spent today that will be spent tomorrow. I don't know of any American who believes you can have a $1 trillion new government program and not add to the debt, but we are told: Wait for the details; we will show you. There is only one way to make sure it doesn't add to the debt: Raise taxes so much that you cover the costs of it. Then that gets to the other half of the equation. What about for the American people? Are we going to be better off? No. It turns out we are going to have our taxes increased by $400 billion, Medicare cut by almost $500 billion -- by the way, if it is ever cut. There is a question about whether we will ever achieve those savings; we never have in the past -- in which case the bill is then out of balance by $500 billion; $500 billion in debt. So either there is going to be a big debt there or seniors are going to see their benefits lost. But I wandered off the point. My colleague was asking, Wasn't the exercise here to reduce costs. Yes. And what will the bills do? It will increase costs for the Federal Government so, therefore, the taxpayers. It will increase costs for all Americans in the form of higher taxes, some imposed directly on us. For example, if we don't comply with the government forcing us to buy insurance, the Congressional Budget Office says other taxes will be passed directly through to us. For example, there is a tax on the manufacturers of medical devices. If you have an angioplasty or some kind of heart problem and they put a little stint in there, one of those very high tech items, that is going to get taxed. Why should you be taxed on something that makes you well? I can't understand that. But in any event, the tax is first on the manufacturer and it will be passed on to the consumer, so increased taxes. Finally, my colleague asked about premiums. According to CBO, the premiums will go up over what they otherwise would have been. The Oliver Wyman study that I think is very credible on this said the average would be $3,300 per year per person. In my State of Arizona, it was over $7,000, an increase in insurance premiums over what it otherwise would be. When Americans see that, they are going to say, Where is the reform? This is a lot worse than it was before. Mr. ALEXANDER. I thank the Senator from Arizona. All of this got started because the Senator from Rhode Island had complained that the Democratic leader had to cut off debate 32 times, and my response was that was nothing to brag about; that is what the Senate is for. That is how the Founders created it. I appreciate the Senator from Arizona pointing out that in the case of unemployment compensation, we all want to extend the benefits. We think we may have a way to do that in a way that creates more jobs rather than taxes on jobs. In the case of health care, yes, we want to go slow enough to be able to do two things: Read the bill, know what it costs, because we want to make sure that if we pass a health care bill, we are not the Congress of higher premiums, higher taxes, Medicare cuts, and adding to the debt. I think the American people want to make sure we do that as well. So I am grateful that we have the Senate. We are always a little more grateful for those rules when we are in the minority, because they protect our rights to represent the people who elect us and to ask us to offer amendments. But the American people have been served very well by a Senate that has different rules and procedures.