Introducing Senate Democrats' First Bills of the 106th Congress
|The Other Important Work this Congress
An Agenda to Help America's Working Families
For three full days now, this Senate has been sitting as a court of impeachment. We are only the second Senate in the history of our nation to sit in judgment of a President, and the first Senate ever to consider impeaching an elected President.
Deciding, ultimately, whether to overturn a free and democratic election is almost certainly the most awesome responsibility any of us will ever be called in our public lives to fulfill.
But it is not the only responsibility before this Senate, Mr. President. On many other urgent issues -- from improving our children's schools, to passing HMO reform, to saving Social Security -- the American people are waiting for us to act. They've been waiting -- frankly, for too long. So today, on behalf of my fellow Democratic Senators, I am introducing our first bills of the 106th Congress.
Our proposals target the real needs of America's families and communities. They are relevant, not revolutionary. If they seem familiar, it's because most of what is in them we first introduced in the last Congress. But they did not pass, despite the support of the American people and, in some cases, by a bipartisan majority of Senators. We offer them again in this Congress because the need for them has not diminished. In fact, it has grown.
Senate Democrats' First Five Bills
The Patients Bill of Rights guarantees HMO patients the right to go to an emergency room, and see a medical specialist, when they need to.
It guarantees doctors the right to tell patients all their treatment options, not merely the cheapest ones. If you're being treated for an illness, or you're pregnant, the Patients' Bill of Rights allows you stay with your own doctor, even if your employer changes health plans. It guarantees parents the right to take their child to a pediatric specialist if they need one.
And it holds HMOs accountable for their decisions. If an HMO refuses to cover a prescription or procedure, our bill allows patients to appeal that decision to an independent third-party. And, if a patient suffers serious harm as a result of insurance company's decision to delay or deny needed care, the Patients' Bill of Rights guarantees them the right to sue their insurer -- the same way every other industry can be sued for its bad decisions.
We're pleased that our Republican colleagues say HMO reform will be a
priority for them this year as well. That's progress. The plan they
offered last year covered only 1 in 3 privately insured Americans and
contained other major holes as well. We hope their new proposal will
correct those problems. We also hope the Republican leadership will allow
an open, honest debate on this issue. That would be further progress. If
we can have that debate, we can pass a real Patients' Bill of Rights this
Over the next 10 years, continued enrollment increases and teacher retirements will require America's public schools to hire more than 2 million new teachers. If we don't act now, the need for new teachers will put ever more pressure on communities to lower their teaching standards.
We made an historic commitment last year to help local communities hire 100,000 new teachers so they could reduce class size to average of 18 students in first three grades, and give young children the personal attention and solid academic foundation they need.
This year, we are proposing a new partnership to increase both the quantity and quality of America's teachers. We'll help local communities attract qualified new teachers by offering college scholarships to students and to professionals who want to switch careers. We'll also help them provide these new teachers with the intensive support they need -- but too often do not get -- during the first few years on the job. At the same time, we'll help communities keep good teachers who are already in the classroom, by providing them with the training they need to strengthen their skills, or learn new skills -- like how to use computers in the classroom.
Our bill provides communities with reduced-rate bonds that will enable
them to cut school
For 20 years, beginning in the early 1970s, 80 percent of America's families didn't get a raise; their incomes stayed flat -- even when they took on second or even third jobs. Fortunately, that's over. Since 1993, the average family income has gone up nearly $2,000 per year.
One way we can keep that trend moving in the right direction is by increasing the minimum wage by $1 over the next two years to $6.15 per hour. We know from experience that raising the minimum wage doesn't hurt the economy. It doesn't kill jobs. What it does is help families, and reinforce our belief as a society in the dignity of work. We hope our Republican colleagues will join us in supporting this modest increase for some of the hardest workers in our nation.
We are also hoping they will join us in supporting a true marriage penalty tax cut.
Last year, Republicans proposed a flat $1,400 tax credit to married couples filing jointly. For most middle-class couples, the tax cut we are proposing is a better deal. Under our plan, two-income couples filing jointly could deduct 20 percent of whichever of their two incomes is lower. For example, a couple earning $35,000 -- split $20,000 and $15,000 -- would get a $3,000 tax cut. A couple earning $50,000 -- $25,000 each -- would get a $5,000 tax cut.
Another difference between our marriage penalty tax cut and the one
Republicans proposed last year is that our tax cut is factored into the
Earned Income Tax Credit, so couples earning less than $30,000 still
receive it, even if they have no income tax liability.
In 1963, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal for employers to pay women less than men for the same job. Thirty-six years later, women in this country still earn, on average, $9,000 a year less than men. Over a lifetime, the average American woman loses $420,000 in wages and benefits because of this pay gap.
Today, when women provide more than half the income in two-thirds of America's families, and all the income in two out of every five families, this continued pay gap is just anti-woman. It's anti- family. Our bill will help narrow the gap by strengthening enforcement of the Equal Pay Act, toughening penalties for employers who break the law; and increasing the remedies available to women who suffer wage discrimination.
Increasing the minimum wage. Cutting the marriage penalty tax. Closing
the pay gap. All of these things will help increase families' economic
security today. We are also need to help people plan for a secure economic
future. That's the other half of our family-income
In addition, our bill changes some of the old rules about pensions to
match the new reality of the way Americans work. Most people now switch
jobs many times in their careers. That makes it hard to for them to build
up a significant pension. Our proposal makes it easier for workers to take
their pensions with them when they change jobs. It also reduces from three
to five years the time it takes to become "vested" in a 401(K) plan; and
it allows workers who don't have pension coverage to build their
own retirement savings through direct contributions from their
paycheck into an IRA.
We don't need a detailed Democratic plan to save Social Security, or a detailed Republican plan. We need a detailed American plan to save Social Security. And we're ready and willing to work with our Republican colleagues to produce one. But until a plan is signed into law, we all need to keep our commitment to save Social Security First.
Let me be very clear: Senate Democrats will do everything in our power to prevent this from happening -- until we fix Social Security. It doesn't matter how large the projected surplus is. We didn't go through all the hard work of balancing the budget just so Congress could once again start spending money we don't have and driving up the deficit.
We don't have a Social Security crisis today. But we could create a crisis for the future if we start spending the surplus now, before we know how much it will cost to keep Social Security solvent once the Baby Boomers start to retire.
Instead of making it easier to raid Social Security, let's work together in this Congress to save it, If our predecessors could summon the political will 60 years ago, during the worst economic times in our history, to create Social Security, surely we can summon the will, during the best economic times in a generation, to preserve it.
We also need to increase the personal security of America's families.
This year, for the sixth year in a row, crime is down in America. That's the longest period of decline in 25 years. Our fourth bill, S.9, the Safe Schools, Safe Streets and Secure Borders Act of 1999, will help reduce crime even further by:
€ targeting violent crime in our schools;
It also expands the Violence Against Women Act -- providing more money for more police officers, more support for prosecutors, more prevention programs, and more shelters and other services for victims of domestic and sexual violence.
It strengthens federal laws against hate crimes.
The final bill in our leadership package is S.10, the Health Protection and Assistance for Older Americans Act.
Democrats have always made protecting Medicare and older Americans a top priority. Six weeks from now, this Congress will receive a report from the Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. Senate Democrats will consider the Commission's proposals carefully.
But there are three proposals we should all be able to agree on now -- even before we see the Commission's report -- to improve the health and lives of older Americans and their families.
The first proposal addresses a serious health care gap in our country -- we refer to it as the Medicare buy-in proposal. It contains three parts. First, it allows people between ages of 55 and 65, and their spouses, to buy into Medicare when their employer downsizes, or their plant shuts down.
Second, it allows people between 62 and 65 who don't have access to
group coverage to buy into Medicare. Participants don't have to be retired
to be eligible. Some might work for small firm that don't offer benefits,
or be self-employed or work part-time in a job that doesn't provide health
The third part of our proposal is designed to help retirees whose promised health benefits are canceled. It allows these retirees to buy into their former employers' company health plan until they turn 65 -- a much more affordable option than buying private individual insurance.
We know what people between 55 and 65 are twice as likely as someone just 10 years younger to experience heart disease, cancer and other major health problems. They have less access to health care coverage. They're at greater risk of losing their coverage. And, they're the fastest-growing age group in our nation. By the year 2010, the number of Americans between 55 and 65 will increase by 60 percent. Let's close this critical gap in our health care system now, before it gets worse.
I also want to tell my colleagues that -- although it is not part of
our package today -- Democrats will be working on a proposal to expand
basic Medicare coverage to include prescription drugs. There is no reason
that seniors should have to choose between buying medicine and buying
The Older Americans Act provides "Meals on Wheels," counseling and other vital support services that allow older Americans to maintain their dignity and independence. Authorization for it expired in 1995. Older Americans deserve better. Democrats will be seeking not only appropriate funding, but improvements as well.
The third proposal in our seniors package will help individuals and their families cope with the financial and emotional strains of long-term care. The centerpiece of this proposal is a new $1,000 tax credit. We'll also help communities create "one-stop" centers that provide counseling and support, including respite care, to family care givers. And, we will create a model long-term care insurance program that will be open to federal employees and retirees and their families. We'll use the negotiated-savings power of the federal government to provide long term care insurance at 15-20 percent below market prices.
That is our leadership package, Senate Democrats' first five priorities
for the 106th Congress. Pass a real Patients' Bill of Right. Strengthen
our children's schools. Increase family incomes. Make our schools and
neighborhoods safer. And help older Americans and their families by
strengthening Medicare, supporting programs that help seniors maintain
their independence, and helping individuals and their families with the
financial and emotional costs of long-term care.
This bill sets voluntary spending limits for Senate candidates -- including limits on candidates' personal spending -- in exchange for substantially reduced TV costs. It also bans "soft money" contributions to national parties, curbs the use of so-called "issue ads" and "independent expenditures," and strengthens laws against foreign campaign contributions.
S.17, the Child Care ACCESS Act, gives working parents more
safe, affordable child care choices. It includes subsidies and tax credits
to help low- and middle-income parents pay for child care, and tax
incentives for companies that offer child care for their workers. It also
help states improve pay for child care teachers, and makes other changes
that will improve the quality of child care. In addition, it creates more
and better after-school programs, so children aren't home alone. And, it
provides a new tax credit for "stay at home moms."
S.18 is the SAFER Meat and Poultry Act. America has the safest food supply in the world. We need to make sure it stays that way. This bill will help by giving USDA the authority to order mandatory recalls of unsafe meat and poultry products instead of relying on voluntary recalls. It also authorizes USDA to levy fines for food violations. The bottom line: it gives USDA the tools it needs to make sure the meat and poultry we buy at the grocery store and eat at restaurants is free of e-coli, salmonella and other harmful bacteria.
Senate Democrats will also in this Congress be proposing additional new safeguards to ensure that the produce and processed foods Americans eat also meet the highest safety standards.
S.19 is our Agricultural Safety Net and Market
Competitiveness Act of 1999.
Our bill will help family farmers and rural communities get through this crisis by restoring the agricultural safety net, and by more aggressively enforcing laws against anti-competitive business practices in meatpacking and other agriculture industries. It will also reduce the chances of future farm crises by helping producers tap new markets for their products at home, and by ensuring that American farmers have fair access to foreign markets.
Our final bill, S.20, the Brownfields and Environmental Cleanup Act of 1999, encourages people to buy and redevelop the tens of thousands of contaminated former industrial sites in communities across the country. Specifically, it provides grants through EPA to help local communities evaluate and clean up contaminated industrial sites. It also provides relief from potential Superfund liability to owners and potential owners who had no hand in causing the contamination. By taking these steps, we can reduce public health risks and help create new jobs and opportunities were they are badly needed.
We do not claim to have all of the right answers. But in these
proposals, we believe we have at least identified the rights issues. It's
clear that these are the issues working families want this Congress to
deal with. They've told us so time and time again.
Last month, there was a dinner in Washington honoring the political leaders who negotiated the "Good Friday Agreement," the historic Northern Ireland peace accord. These are people who have found a way somehow to overcome ancient hatreds and create a new government based on peace and justice. Their new government is still very fragile, and it faces many challenges. But the people at this dinner were convinced they would succeed. As one woman put it, "There's no turning back. For once, we're doing what Americans do. We believe in ourselves."
We must believe in ourselves. No generation of Americans has ever said
"we can't meet the great challenges of our time." No Congress has ever
said that. And this Congress must not say it, either. Let us agree to work
together to help America's families.
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