11.16.06

KENNEDY ANNOUNCES HELP COMMITTEE PRIORITIES FOR 110TH CONGRESS KENNEDY COMMITTED TO MOVING AMERICA FORWARD THROUGH HEALTH, EDUCATION, AND PENSIONS COMMITTEE AGENDA (AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY)

The message from this election is clear. There’s little doubt that the American people want a change of course in Iraq. But they also want a government that stands with them and their families as they look to the future – jobs that reward their hard work, health care that is good and affordable, and education that continues to open the door to the American dream for all of our citizens. That was the agenda of the voters in this election and it will be the agenda of our Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee when we convene in the new year. And with Senator Reid as our majority leader, America’s families will see great progress on the issues that they care most about Yesterday, Democrats selected the membership of our committee. Every member is an experienced legislator with a deep commitment to working families and a solid record for getting things done.So I welcome back Senator Dodd, Senator Harkin, Senator Mikulski, Senator Bingaman, Senator Murray, Senator Jack Reed and Senator Clinton. And I welcome our new members: Senator Obama, Senator-elect Sanders and Senator-elect Brown. I am also grateful to continue working together with Chairman Enzi. The gavel may change hands, but our partnership will not. He’s a true leader and has set the standard for fairness and statesmanship, and I look forward to working with him on the many issues before the Committee in the next Congress.My first priority will be to increase the minimum wage. Americans are working harder than ever, but millions of hard-working men and women across the country aren’t getting their fair share. We’re not rewarding work fairly anymore, and working families are falling behind. The minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15 an hour for almost 10 years. A minimum wage worker who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year still makes just $10,700 a year—$6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. In this era of skyrocketing costs, these hardworking Americans are forced to make impossible choices—between paying the rent or buying food, between paying for gas or paying the doctor.Americans understand fairness, and they know this is unfair. That’s why the American people took the battle into their own hands this year. They pounded the pavements for months to put minimum wage increases on the ballot in six states this year. And all six of these ballot initiatives passed by decisive margins. If there is one message from this election that emerged loud and clear, it’s that no one who works for a living should have to live in poverty! Raising the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour will benefit almost 15 million Americans. It will helpmore than 7.3 million children whose parents will receive a raise. Minimum wage workers serve in many of the most difficult and most important jobs in our society. They care for children in day care centers, and for the elderly in nursing homes. They clean officebuildings, hotel rooms, and restaurants across the country. They are men and women of dignity, and they deserve a fair wage that respects the dignity of their work. It’s long past time to give minimum wage workers a raise. Another high priority is to remove the barriers to lifesaving stem cell research.We are in the era of the life sciences, and no area of medical research has more promise than stem cell research to speed the search for new cures for diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, cancer, and many other serious illnesses. Thanks to the courage of leaders such as Michael J. Fox, the people of Missouri last week chose hope over fear by approving a constitutional amendment to allow stem cell research. Congress should learn from that example. Last year, a broad bipartisan majority approved legislation to tear down the barriers that have kept NIH scientists from realizing the full potential of this research. That bill was rejected by the President, but hope can never be vetoed. We will be back again and again next year until we succeed in overturning the restrictions on stem cell research that hinder the search for new cures, and delay the day when the hope of a better future becomes a reality for patients across America. We must also address the crisis in college affordability that affects every low and middle income family and that threatens our economic progress. It is more important than ever for our citizens to have a college education so they can compete in the global economy and have a fair chance at the American Dream.But because of soaring college costs, stagnant student aid and heavy student loan debt, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for our citizens to get such an education. Today, students and families are pinching every penny to save for college – but it’s not enough. Each year, 400,000 low income students do not attend a four year college because of cost factors. Student debt is also a barrier to the pursuit of vital but lower-paying professions like teaching, public health, and social work.Last year, we passed an increase in student aid through the Senate only to see our proposals die in the House. With the House and Senate under new management, next year we will provide needed help to families struggling to put their children through college. We will increase Pell Grants from $4,050 to $5,100.We will cap college loan payments to no more than 15% of your income.We will cut student loan interest rates.We will reform the student loan program so it works for students and not just the banks. And we’ll use the savings to increase student aid. And at long last, we can no longer ignore the need for health care reform. We must reduce the cost of health and we must make it available to each and every American. Every Member of the Senate, and their staffs, and every federal employee has a sense of security about health care that is denied to millions of Americans. Members of Congress know that if we get sick, or if our children need medical care, our health insurance plan will cover virtually all of the costs. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens have no such guarantee. Nearly fifty million Americans lack health care coverage entirely, and tens of millions more have inadequate coverage. In a nation with the best doctors and finest hospitals in the world, it is profoundly wrong that so many Americans suffer from illnesses that could have been prevented or treated more effectively -- if only health care had been available and affordable. The time is long overdue to address the crisis in health care. Bipartisan health care reform is possible, and our first step toward it should be effective legislation to strengthen and re-authorize CHIP, the program that provides quality health care for 4 million children. But our experience with health reform in Massachusetts showed that we can do more. We proved that people from all parts of the political spectrum can come together to provide health care for all. So this, too, is one of our top goals for the coming Congress. Together, we can – we must -- make the promise of this century of the life sciences a reality for all Americans by seeing that every American has quality, affordable health care.These are our top priorities for the new year, but they are not our only priorities. We must pass the CLASS Act and create a long-term care infrastructure in this country that will support every American’s choice to live at home and be part of their community. Every older or disabled American has this right, and it’s our job in Congress to provide them with the support they need to make this a reality. We will strengthen early learning opportunities, starting at birth, for each of our children. Prevention works in health care and it can work in education as well. We must also ensure that our schools are equipped to meet the challenges of the global economy. Our nation’s future depends on many things, but certainly one of the most important measures of the strength of our democracy is the excellence of our public schools. This year, we’ll revisit the reforms contained in the No Child Left Behind Act. The law charted a sound course for American education four years ago, but it’s time for us to reshape our commitment and provide better solutions for schools to respond to the challenges identified by the law. These reforms are right and we’re ready to work with President Bush, as we did five years ago.But given the many failures of implementation by his Administration and the meager commitments to education reform in his budgets, the President has a high hurdle to cross to demonstrate that he is seriously committed to these reforms. In addition, we must give workers a stronger voice in their own futures and in meeting the needs of their families. We must protect workers’ right to join together and fight for better wages and working conditions, free from employer intimidation. Workers need opportunities to improve their skills through job training programs. And families deserve paid sick days to care for loved ones without fear of losing their jobs.Americans who have worked a lifetime to provide for their families deserve to retire in dignity, not in poverty. We must ensure our retirement system works for all Americans, not just corporateexecutives. We can make bipartisan progress, too, on measures that will improve health care and reduce costs – not by denying services to patients, but by improving efficiency and effectiveness. Congress should aid doctors, hospitals, and patients improve their use of electronic medical records, and we should explore responsible ways to reward the quality of health care, not just the quantity of care. And we must fulfill our duty through our hearings and our legislative program to ensure that government is working for the people. That we have strong laws to keep workers safe on the job and that workers are fairly paid. That student loans work for students and not just the banks. That students are protected from exploitation in the private student loan market. That prescription drugs we rely on and the food we eat is safe. That the workers that risked their lives for others on 9/11 are cared for as they deal now with the illness and injury. These will be my priorities as Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee next year. They come directly out of this election where the American people spoke loud and clear. And I look forward to working with my colleagues to make important progress for America’s families.

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