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Mr. KOHL. Mr. President, I have serious reservations about this budget and will vote against it.
At their best, budgets ought to embody discipline, vision, and accuracy. Not so for this budget. While it claims fiscal discipline, that claim is belied in the budget's bloated bottom line. While it claims strategic vision, that vision is a blurred blend of wasted dollars, missed opportunities, and neglected priorities. While it claims financial accuracy, that accuracy is of the quality found in an Enron balance sheet.
The tax portion of the budget resolution is remarkable, not for what it contains, but for what it omits. It fails to account for the expiration of alternative minimum tax relief at the end of 2006. The AMT currently captures approximately 4 million, mostly middle-class, families and individuals in its high tax trap--a trap meant to catch only high-income taxpayers who take advantage of complicated loopholes to avoid paying their fair share. That number would swell to more than 34 million people in 2011 under this budget.
Instead of AMT reform, this budget contains $228 million to accommodate tax cuts that were included in the House and Senate passed reconciliation bills currently in conference. I voted against the Senate tax reconciliation bill because I could not support unnecessary tax cut extensions at a time of burgeoning deficits. The deficits are still burgeoning, and I still oppose those unneeded and unjustified tax breaks for our highest income taxpayers.
The budget's generosity to high-income taxpayers is offset by its miserly treatment of our Nation's educational system. The budget proposes the largest cut to federal education funding in the 26-year history of the Education Department. Students, educators, parents, and administrators all lose out. Under this budget, funding for No Child Left Behind and special education will still fall far short of their authorized levels. The same holds for Career and Technical Education, Safe and Drug Free Schools, and TRIO programs. I commend Senators SPECTER and HARKIN for their successful amendment to restore some of these deeps cuts, and hope their provision will survive conference with the House.
As ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, I am also troubled that some of the most painful cuts in this budget would fall on important programs at the Administration on Aging. The meager funding levels in this budget would put Meals on Wheels and Family Caregiver Support Services on the chopping block. That means that, while Wisconsin's senior population continues to grow from 705,000 senior citizens in 2000 to 730,000 seniors this year, and is projected to grow to 1.2 million seniors by 2025, this budget will not keep pace with needed services in Wisconsin or any other State.
Funding for geriatric health professions is also likely to suffer. Title VII funding for geriatrics training is the only Federal program that specifically develops academic geriatricians at a time when more are needed. In prior years, Congress has demonstrated its strong support for the program through continued and increased appropriations over the past five years, including $31.5 million in fiscal year 2005. I was disappointed that the fiscal year 2006 Labor, HHS bill eliminated this program, and I am even more concerned that the budget before us makes it difficult, if not impossible to restore it in fiscal year 2007. Delegates to the recent White House Conference on Aging ranked increased training in geriatrics among their top ten resolutions at the once in a decade meeting in December of 2005. Clearly, this budget does not adequately prepare for our aging population.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the budget resolution's treatment--or lack thereof--of the Medicare prescription drug benefit. During consideration of this budget, many of us worked to improve that benefit. The launch of the drug benefit has been confusing and complicated for too many seniors and people with disabilities. Medicare beneficiaries who do not choose a plan by the May 15 deadline and enroll at a later date will face a substantial and permanent penalty. I cosponsored an amendment to extend the enrollment period through all of 2006 to give people additional time to make the best plan choice for them. This amendment would have also allowed a one-time change in plan enrollment at any point in 2006.
Enrolling in drug plans has been challenging and confusing for too many beneficiaries, and it makes sense to give them a chance to correct an initial mistake made during this difficult first year of implementation. Unfortunately, our amendment failed by one vote and the Senate instead gave Medicare managers discretionary authority to decide to extend the enrollment deadline for the drug benefit. While I voted for that amendment because I believe it is important to send a strong signal, I am concerned by recent comments made by the President and Medicare officials. Those comments clearly show their resistance to giving seniors more time to make a careful decision about what drug plan they will be locked into for the remainder of the year.
In addition, under current law, prescription drug plans can change the drugs they cover as many times as they want--while seniors are prohibited from changing drug plans except during the annual open enrollment period. This means that after seniors complete their research and choose the drug plan they believe is the best plan for their needs, they have no guarantee that their drugs will continue to be covered all year. That is why I cosponsored an amendment that would prohibit Medicare prescription drug plans from removing a drug from their approved list until the beginning of each plan year. This would ensure that seniors will not lose coverage of the drugs they take without being allowed to also change their plan.
Finally, one of the most troublesome features of the new law is that it prohibits the Government from utilizing the tremendous purchasing power of the Medicare program to reduce prices. I cosponsored an amendment to repeal this provision and allow the Federal Government to negotiate directly with drug companies for lower drug prices for seniors. I am pleased the amendment passed and I hope this provision will remain in the final resolution.
The budget was also improved by an amendment, of which I was an original sponsor, on the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, MEP. The amendment, which was unanimously accepted, would fund the MEP at $106 million for fiscal year 2007. I am a long-time supporter of the MEP program and believe manufacturing is crucial to the U.S. economy. By offering resources, including organized workshops and consulting projects, to manufacturers, MEP allows them to streamline operations, integrate new technologies, shorten production times, and lower costs. At a time when we want to increase economic activity and strengthen the manufacturing base of our nation, the MEP is a fiscally sound investment.
I am similarly pleased that this budget was amended to include adequate funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. I voted to include $5.1 billion in order to fund this valuable program at its fully authorized level. Just a few months ago the Congress passed an energy bill, which I supported, which funded LIHEAP at $5.1 billion. This was a sorely needed update to a program where the funding has been frozen at an inadequate amount for years. There was bipartisan support for the Energy Bill, and I am pleased the Congress met the commitment we made in that bill.
But even those improvements--important as they are to me--fail to make up for one of the central and most disturbing inadequacies of this budget. This budget simply fails to provide adequate resources to take care of our returning troops. Once again the President's budget requires the Veterans Administration to charge veterans an enrollment fee and increases the co-payments for veterans receiving medical care through the VA system. These charges add insult to injury when veterans are also being forced to wait for months before they are able to see a doctor at the local VA hospital. Senator Akaka's amendment tried to remedy this situation by adding an additional $1.5 billion to the budget, but his responsible approach was rejected.
We face unprecedented challenges in our Nation today. War and terrorism demand our resources and attention. An aging population struggles to find the money to educate the next generation while battling sky high health care costs. Our powerful economy fights to create high quality jobs in a world market of constant technological innovation and fierce international competition.
We need a budget that that sees and meets these challenges clearly--vision. We need a budget that faces the difficult realities of our world today with honest proposals and precise numbers--accuracy. And we need a budget that does what we should and must and no more--discipline. We have a budget that does none of that, and so I will vote ``no.''