As Congress meets for a final session before we adjourn for the holidays, we should be focused on the true meaning of Christmas and the special thoughts that Americans of many faiths have at this time of year regarding their families, their friends and neighbors, and the rest of humanity.
There are those in America who urge the return of the word “Christmas” to this holiday season. I believe that while it is an important one, Christmas is more than a word. It is a belief in a power far greater than ourselves. It is a belief in the possibility of lives full of hope and fulfillment. It is a belief that each of us has a sacred obligation to care for one another and to help those in need – to lend a hand to the least of those in our midst. As the Bible teaches us, we should “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”
But I’m sad to report, that’s not what we’re seeing in Congress with this week. Today, we are debating two funding bills – the budget bill and the annual funding bill for labor, health and education. Both of these bills will make life harder for millions and millions of Americans in order to secure tax give- aways for the wealthy.
Some of these cuts will mean that the average millionaire will receive $32,000 next year, while the average middle class American will receive $29.
To pay for these tax breaks, the Republican budget ignores American priorities in the areas of education, health, and job training, and takes money from the poor.
For example, if the Republican funding bill before the Senate today is enacted three million disadvantaged children will not get smaller classes, better teachers or afterschool programs because funding under the No Child Left Behind program will be cut by $780 million. The first cut to education in a decade.
At the same time, under the Republican budget, 170,000 students each year will not have the opportunity to attend college as Pell Grants will be frozen for the fourth year in a row, despite tuition rising 46% at four-year public colleges since 2001.
Jobs will go unfilled across the country, because workers will not have the training they need. In my state, over 70,000 jobs are vacant, yet Massachusetts will receive millions less for training programs to help fill these jobs and put America back to work.
Americans will continue to be vulnerable to the threat of avian flu, without the funds needed to prepare for a pandemic.
Shockingly, the Republican leadership has rejected the $8 billion amendment that Senator Harkinoffered and the Senate approved to enhance vaccine production, stockpile flu medicine, accelerate research, and take other measures needed to prepare for the growing threat.
The proposed NIH budget will be woefully inadequate to maintain our tradition of research excellence and breakthrough medical science. This is the smallest percentage increase to the NIH budget since 1970 and the research and development budget fails to keep up with inflation. These budget cuts will mean that four of five innovative new ideas will be ignored. Over 500 new research grants will fall by the wayside.
There are 45 million Americans who lack health insurance, but the House Republican budget bill would increase costs and cut health benefits to millions of low-income families slashing Medicaid funding by $12 billion over the next five years, and $48 billion over 10 years.
Under this Administration, the number of uninsured has already risen to historic levels. But the House bill will add to their ranks, with as many as 2 million poor families dropped from the Medicaid program because they can’t afford to pay. Another 5 million people – half of them children – will see their health benefits cut.For those who face hunger this Christmas season, these proposals add to their pain by cutting food stamps by $700 million, denying assistance to a quarter of a million poor people.
And it makes life worse for poor children who rely on child support to survive. The House Republican bill greatly weakens enforcement efforts to make dead beat dads live up to their responsibilities and provide for their children. Under the Republican plan, nearly $8 billion will be lost in child support payments over the next five years – $24 billion in child support payments will go uncollected over the next ten years.These are the nation’s poor children. They are vulnerable and in need. But the Republican plan would abandon them this Christmas.
The Republican budget proposals will cause many families to choose between putting food on the table and keeping warm this winter.
In Massachusetts, the LIHEAP program serves 134,000 needy families. Patsy Lewis, the Executive Director of the Worcester Community Action Council, reports that – for the families receiving LIHEAP aid – the maximum benefit for a family under current funding levels is only $765 for the heating season, for a household at the poverty level. This is enough for only one tank of oil. It takes at least two to four tanks to make it through the winter.
These efforts are all done so that tax breaks can be given to the wealthiest Americans.
That is why today, under Senator Harkin’s leadership, we are asking our colleagues to reject the appropriations bill – a bill that fails American students seeking a better education, fails American families seeking protection from a pandemic flu and fails American workers seeking the training they need to succeed.
That’s why Democrats are demanding during this holiday season that we meet our obligations to our families and to those who have fallen on hard times.
That’s why we offer the Senate the chance to vote on motions to:o Reject cuts to Medicaid so that families can keep their health coverage. o o o Reject cuts to food stamps at a time when child hunger is increasing; oo Reject cuts to child support at a time when single mothers are having difficultymaking ends meet; ando Insist on a real increase for LIHEAP so families can keep their children safe andwarm this winter.o That is why I will ask the Senate to insist that we do more to ensure that all American students seeking a college education have the assistance they need to do so.
Under Chairman Enzi's leadership, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions reduced the excessive profits of banks and lenders and redirected those funds to help students afford the cost of college.
My motion instructs the conferees to retain those provisions in negotiations with the House, and to reject the provisions by House Republicans that would increase costs for students.
We have learned from history that education is the key to keeping America strong, secure, and competitive. Now more than ever we must embrace and invest in education to advance America in the years ahead.
This requires a commitment to ensuring educational opportunity for all – especially for our talented youth who have so much potential, but need help affording a college degree.
In the Senate bill, we took a step in the right direction. The bill includes over $8 billion in new need- based aid which will mean a long overdue increase in Pell grants for 5 million students.
The provision will increase the maximum grant for Pell-eligible students from $4,050 to $4,500immediately. It also offers an additional $1,500 in grants for the neediest students who study math and science, in order to reduce the critical shortage of graduates in these fields.
In Massachusetts, nearly 80,000 students received Pell grants last year. Under the Senate provision, $120 million in additional aid will be available for Massachusetts students over the next 5 years.
We know that education is the great equalizer. Young men and women willing to work hard in school should be able to go to college.
But the cost of even public college tuition and fees has skyrocketed in recent years and the Pell grant has not kept pace. Under current law, this will be the fourth year in a row that the maximum Pell grant has not increased even by a penny.
For countless families, the gap is too great, and college is out of reach. Over 400,000 talented, qualified students each year can’t go to a 4-year college because they can’t afford it. 170,000 do not attend college at all. That’s unacceptable.
Take the case of Carli, from Hampton, New Hampshire. She’s a junior at a public college in the state, and she already has $25,000 of debt. She relies on her Pell grant, but even with that aid, she has to work 20 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week in the summer.
She writes, "This is not a question of not working hard enough. It has been an uphill battle to put myself through school. I am happy to do it, but I just want to know that when I'm through, there is a place for me in the American Dream too."
Becky, from Holyoke, Massachusetts is a junior in college and is already in $24,000 of debt. She's alarmed at how high it will be when she graduates, especially if she loses her Pell grant aid on top of increasing tuition.
She writes, "We students are the future of the USA. By putting us at risk and in a financial crisis, Bush and his cronies are putting the future of the USA at risk."
More than half of the students who receive Pell grants are working adults, independent students with a median income of $12,700, who are struggling to support themselves and in many cases their families while they attend college. Their numbers are growing because they know better education means better jobs, better wages and a better life for their families.
The House bill moves in the opposite direction for these students. It actually increases costs for students by imposing new fees, taking away existing student benefits, and subjecting students to higher interest rates.
At a time when college is more important than ever, and fewer and fewer talented young people can afford it, it’s an outrage for Congress to even consider imposing higher barriers to a college degree.
I urge my colleagues to join me in sending a strong message to the conferees that students need help now.
Laura Capps/ Melissa Wagoner (202) 224-2633