Press Release
January 19, 1999

Introducing Senate Democrats' First Bills of the 106th Congress

The Other Important Work this Congress Must Do:
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

Our first bill is S.6, the Patients' Bill of Rights. Democratic Senators spoke about this bill so often last year, trying to persuade our Republican colleagues to permit a vote on it, that I think we may all know it inside-and-out. In a nutshell, our Patients' Bill of Rights is based on a fundamental premise that insurance company accountants have no business practicing medicine. Decisions about medical care should be made by doctors and patients. Period.

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 year.

Our second bill, S.7, is the Public Schools Excellence Act.

There are more children in America's public schools this year than ever before in our nation's history. These record enrollments are already causing serious teacher shortages. One way some schools are trying to deal with the shortages is by lowering standards for new teachers.

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.

But even the best teachers can't teach, and students can't learn, in classrooms that are unsafe or crammed beyond capacity. That is why, as part of our education bill, we are also re-introducing our plan to help local communities repair and replace crumbling and overcrowded schools.

We all know the figures: According to the GAO, 14 million children in this country attend schools that require major renovations; and 7 million children attend schools with serious safety code violations such as asbestos, radon, and lead-based paint. Millions more children attend schools that hold far more students than they were designed for.

Our bill provides communities with reduced-rate bonds that will enable them to cut school
construction and repair costs to local taxpayers by as much as 50 percent.

More than 90 percent of America's children attend public schools. By strengthening their schools, we can give our children the skills to prosper in tomorrow's economy. But we also need to help families the tools to succeed in today's economy. That is the focus of Democrats' third bill, S.8, the Income Security Enhancement Act.

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.

We also need to close the pay gap between men and women.

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 package.

I talk to people all the time who tell me they're worried they won't have the "luxury" of retirement. Democrats believe we don't have the luxury of ignoring the coming retirement crisis. We need to deal with the serious issue of retirement security -- in this Congress.

It is not OK that fewer than half of all American workers have pensions. That is why we are re-introducing our proposal to significantly increase the number of workers with pensions, and strengthen pension security. Our bill makes it easier and cheaper for small businesses to offer pension plans. It also strengthens auditing and other security measures to designed protect pension funds from misuse and mismanagement -- so the pensions workers earn are actually there when they retire.

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.
The other thing this Congress must do to increase Americans' retirement security is protect Social Security.

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.

Some people are suggesting that we can walk away from that commitment now because the surplus projections are bigger today than we expected. They want to change the rules and make it easier to spend the surplus.

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;

reforming the juvenile justice system;

combating gang violence;

cracking down on the sale and use of illegal drugs;

giving police and prosecutors more tools and resources to fight street crime, international crime and terrorism; and

strengthening the rights of crime victims.

In 1994, we made a commitment to put 100,000 new police officers on the street in communities all across America. Our new crime bill builds on that commitment by enabling communities to hire an additional 25,000 police officers through the COPS program..

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.

And it sets a national drunk-driving standard of .08 percent blood alcohol.

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 benefits.

Both of these new coverage options are largely self-financing. The people "buying in" will pay
premiums, just as they would for private health insurance.

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 groceries.

We will also be making reauthorization of the Older Americans Act a top priority for this Congress. That is the second part of our seniors package.

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.

I am also introducing five other bills today. These bills are not in our leadership package, but they are important priorities for our caucus -- and our nation.

S.16 is the Congressional Election Campaign Spending Limit and Reform Act. We must end the money chase in politics. It's out of control, and it's destroying people's faith in government, and the ability of government to function. We all know that.

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."

Full-day child care can cost anywhere from $4,000 a year to $10,000 ­ as much as tuition at a public university. By passing this bill, we can ease some of the financial strain on working families and make sure America's children are safe and well-cared for while their parents are at work.

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.

America's family farmers are currently experiencing their worst economic crisis in at least a decade -- and possibly since the Great Depression. This crisis is undermining the economic and social fabric of rural communities all across America. But the implications effect all consumers, regardless of where they live.

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.

Tonight in his State of the Union address, the President will outline his agenda for the coming year. We welcome his ideas. We also welcome the ideas of our Republican colleagues. We are ready to work with the White House and with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the spirit of consensus and teamwork to do the work the American people expect us to do.

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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