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Public Statements

National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2008

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, the late Arthur Helton, perhaps our country's greatest advocate for the rights of refugees, wrote:

Refugees matter ..... for a wide variety of reasons. ..... Refugees are a product of humanity's worst instincts, the willingness of some persons to oppress others, as well as some of its best instincts, the willingness of many to assist and protect the helpless. .....

A year after he wrote those words, Arthur Helton was killed in Baghdad in 2003 when a bomb destroyed the U.N. headquarters in Iraq. His words still resonate today, especially when we consider the immense human cost of the war in Iraq and its tragic effect on the millions of Iraqis--men, women, and children--who have fled their homes, their country, to escape the violence of a nation at war with itself.

These brave and heroic Iraqis work with the American military, staff our embassy, and work with American organizations to support our mission in Iraq. They are among the 4 million Iraqi refugees who have been forced from their homes. They are the people we have an obligation to help.

Instead of protection, we have offered them bureaucracy and doublespeak, false words and dubious hopes. Despite the overwhelming need, the U.S. has resettled less than 2,000 Iraqis this fiscal year. Last night, the Senate acted and stood up to help Iraqi refugees.

I thank Senator Levin and Senator McCain for adopting our amendment, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007. I thank Senator Warner as well. This was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of Senators: Senators Smith, Levin, Hagel, Biden, Brownback, Lieberman, Leahy, Snowe, Durbin, Voinovich, Feinstein, Collins, Obama, Dole, Menendez, Mikulski, and Clinton.

The need is especially urgent for those whose work for the United States has put them in danger. Because they supported us, insurgents have repeatedly threatened to kill them. Many have lost their homes, their property, their livelihoods. They face ongoing threats every single day. Some have fled the country and are waiting in refugee camps, and others are in hiding. All of them hope the United States will not forget their sacrifices.

Still others have tried to flee, only to be stopped at the border, trapped in a country that cannot protect them, abandoned by a country, our country, that they believed would set them free. Others continue their work, living in fear of the day that the insurgents punish them for working for Americans. They are women such as Sarah, whose husband worked as an interpreter for the coalition forces in a combat hospital. Although he kept his job secret, insurgents discovered his identity. They broke into his family home, kidnapped her and released her only after torturing and raping her.

The family fled to a neighboring country where they have waited for almost a year in the hopes of qualifying for refugee status. Sarah's husband has been forced to return to Iraq. Each day that passes without assistance brings the rest of the family closer to an involuntary return to Iraq.

She wrote: Dear gentlemen: I put my suffering between your hands as my hope in you is great that you will hear our calling.

And there are men such as Sami who worked for USAID. He received several death threats, one in the form of a blood-soaked bullet sealed in an envelope. Sami pressed on, despite the threats, in order to help improve local governments and strengthen civil society.

In June 2006, a group of men armed with machine guns attempted to kidnap his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son outside their home. The attack was thwarted, but his wife nearly miscarried and his son suffered prolonged shock. Sami and his family fled to Jordan where they live day to day waiting for the labyrinthine process to rule on their refugee case. Our Government owes these Iraqis an immense debt of gratitude. Many American employees owe their lives to those Iraqis.

Despite the clear and present danger many Iraqis face based on their ties to the United States, their religious affiliation, or their work with media, nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations, the vast majority of Iraqi refugees must go through a long and complicated referral process of approximately 8 to 10 months, in which the United Nations serves as an intermediary. There are no provisions for conducting refugee screenings within Iraq as there should be.

In a recent cable, Ambassador Crocker asked the administration to reconsider its practices. He estimates that under the current practices it would take more than 2 years to process the over 10,000 referrals made by the United Nations. As Ambassador Crocker noted:

Clearly, this is too long. Refugees who have fled Iraq continue to be a vulnerable population while living in Jordan and Syria.

Ambassador Crocker asked for the authority to process refugees in Iraq. He asked for the authority to provide special immigrant visas for those who have worked in good faith with our Government in Iraq. He asked to expedite the processing of refugee claims to save lives. Surely, we can all agree with Ambassador Crocker that delay is unacceptable. But we must clearly do better by these Iraqis who have sacrificed so much for the United States.

The amendment approved by the Senate last night will cut through the redtape. It requires the Secretary of State to establish a refugee processing program in Iraq and in countries in the region for Iraqis threatened because of their association with the U.S. Government.

Those Iraqis who worked with our Government will be able to apply directly to the United States in Iraq, rather than going through the United Nations referral system outside Iraq. It authorizes 5,000 special immigrant visas yearly for 5 years for Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. Government in Iraq and are threatened as a result. It also allows Iraqis in the United States who have been denied asylum because conditions in Iraq changed after Saddam Hussein's government fell to have cases reheard.

Surely, we cannot resettle all of Iraq's refugees in the United States, but we need to do our part. America has a special obligation to keep faith with the Iraqis who now have a bull's eye on their back because of their association with our Government.

I had the honor of meeting SGT Joseph Seemiller, a young man who is haunted by the military motto: Leave no man behind. Sergeant Seemiller is dedicated to helping the translator he was forced to leave behind in Iraq. On countless occasions, his translator helped to avoid several American and Iraqi casualties. He braved innumerable death threats and the horrific murder of his brother, finally fleeing to Syria where he has waited for more than 2 years for a chance to be resettled in the United States.

Those words haunt us all. I am delighted the Senate has taken this important step to honor our commitment to the brave men and women whose lives are at risk.

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I know we wouldn't be able to have made progress unless we had the strong support of both the chairman and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. I am very grateful to them. This has been a strong bipartisan effort. It is important. We want to work with the Department and the agencies to make sure it is implemented correctly. I am appreciative of their continuing involvement in caring about these individuals. You could hear both of them speak about this measure and know they are involved, and they care very deeply about our responsibilities. We are enormously grateful to them for including this in the legislation.

AMENDMENT NO. 3058

I wanted to address the Senate for a few minutes on the underlying and pending amendment. At this critical time, when we face major challenges in our national security, America relies more than ever on the Department of Defense and its dedicated employees at home and abroad. More than 675,000 civilian workers serve our country every day repairing planes, ships, tanks or overseeing the storage and distribution of vital weapons and supplies. These hard-working Americans are the backbone of our commitment to keep our troops safe and protect our Nation. But these vital civilian employees of the Department of Defense have been under sustained attack from the Bush administration. Instead of honoring and fairly rewarding their patriotic service, the administration has gone on a binge of outsourcing, forcing Federal workers to fight to keep their jobs in a competition where the deck is stacked against them.

The Department of Defense has been an aggressive accomplice to the administration's effort. More than 121,000 civilian Defense employees could lose their jobs in the next 3 years. In fact, these employees are more likely to lose their jobs than employees of any other Federal agencies. Ill-advised outsourcing has not only hurt the DOD employees who are deprived of their jobs and benefits; it also has a massive impact on our brave men and women in uniform. Our Armed Forces deserve the very best workers supporting them. They also deserve the opportunity to continue serving their country after they come home from the battlefield. Thirty-five percent of civilian Defense employees are veterans. These loyal Americans deserve to be commended and cheered for choosing to continue to serve their country when they return home. Yet the administration is bent on taking their opportunity away from them, and from Americans currently serving overseas as well, by outsourcing their jobs.

At the very least, we owe these patriotic Americans a fair chance to compete for important work. But the administration's irresponsible outsourcing rules are heavily biased against Federal employees. The point, it is insidious. The rules are different for contractors than for Federal workers. Private companies get advantages that dedicated Federal workers do not. The current system is designed to promote outsourcing, even when it doesn't save money. One of the most appalling roadblocks preventing fair competition is the unjust advantage contractors gain by shortchanging workers' health and retirement benefits. At a time when 47 million Americans don't have health insurance and only one in five Americans has a secure retirement plan, we should be doing all we can to encourage more companies to provide fair benefits to their employees. But current Federal contracting rules actually discourage private companies from providing health coverage or helping employees to save for retirement.

Firms that provide no benefits or inadequate benefits win bids to perform Government work, even when the cost savings from their bid are attributed solely to the fact that they are shortchanging workers. We understand that.

These veterans have served in the Armed Forces. They come back, are working in the Defense Department. More than a third of all workers have served, been in the military, served our country. Now they are working. Because they are working for the Defense Department, they get health insurance and some retirement benefits. Now a contractor comes in and says they want to bid for a particular job. In the bidding process, the Government has to add the cost of retirement and their health insurance, while the private contractor provides no health insurance and no security for these workers in terms of pensions. They have some obvious advantage in what is now a rush to the bottom, constantly outsourcing and winning contracts.

This is unfair. Our amendment, spoken to brilliantly last evening by Senator Mikulski, says, let's exclude those and have real competition. Let's take the fact that they have health insurance and have retirement benefits off. Let them compete and have real competition for this work. We know in circumstances where they have that real competition, these workers will win the jobs.

The unfair practice creates a dangerous race to the bottom in which the private sector companies compete against each other to see who can provide the fewest benefits to their workers. It penalizes companies that want to do the right thing. As a result, the bidding process is actually increasing the number of Americans whose health and future security are in jeopardy. That is irrational and unconscionable. It is patently unfair to the thousands of Federal employees who lose their jobs every year because of irresponsible contractors. Workers should not be unfairly disadvantaged and lose contracts simply because they receive decent benefits. Each and every Member of Congress has good health insurance. Each and every Member of Congress has a secure retirement. Americans who serve our country in the Defense Department deserve the same.

One of the key protections in the fair competition amendment corrects this injustice. It prevents contractors from winning bids to perform Government contracts solely because they provide inadequate benefits or no benefits at all. The Department is instructed not to consider health care and retirement costs in comparing contract bids. The winners of competition should be employers who operate more efficiently, not employers who provide the fewest benefits. The amendment does not dictate the benefits that employers must provide. It does not state the benefits employers have to provide or require contractors to modify their existing benefits. All it does is eliminate the perverse incentive that discourages contractors from providing fair benefits and give Federal employees a fair chance to prove they are the best workers for the job.

It is a realistic solution to improve the process of public-private competition, and it has bipartisan support. The health care provisions have been a part of the appropriations legislation for years and a bipartisan Kennedy-Hatch amendment, providing the same treatment for retirement costs, was accepted on the Defense appropriations bill last year. Members on both sides of the aisle recognized it is not good policy for the Government to shift work from the public sector employees to private sector employees solely because it is cheaper to deny health and retirement benefits to employees. The fair competition amendment contains other important protections to level the playing field for civilian Defense employees in public-private competition. It allows Federal employees to appeal unfair privatization decisions, as contractors can do now. We are making sure those employees have the right to appeal. It allows managers to extend a contract when Federal employees perform well, as they can for private contractors under law. It prohibits the use of outsourcing quotas so agencies aren't forced to such privatization against their will. It ensures that outsourcing will occur only when it produces real savings to taxpayers. Shouldn't that be the criteria? Shouldn't that be the test, real savings, quality work for the taxpayers?

It calls on the Department of Defense to stop dragging its feet and issue long overdue guidelines so civilian employees have a fair opportunity to compete for new work or work that has been outsourced incorrectly or unfairly in the past. This amendment is about fairness. Americans understand fairness--fairness to the taxpayer, fairness to civilians, fairness to Government workers, fairness to our men and women in uniform who deserve the very best possible support for their missions at home and abroad.

I urge my colleagues to support the fair competition amendment.

I will take a moment to demonstrate what the challenge has been. Competition: in 2004, 10 percent of the jobs were lost; 29 percent in 2005. This is the projection for 2006 and 2007. It is a real crisis for many workers. This says thousands of veterans could lose their jobs under the Bush outsourcing rules. Thirty-four percent of civilian Defense employees are veterans. Our amendment ensures that these 226,000 dedicated Americans who have served our country will not lose their jobs because of unfair outsourcing. That is what this amendment is basically about. This is the issue. We are looking at fairness--fairness for the taxpayer, fairness to those who have served our country as men and women in uniform and now are serving in the Defense Department, fairness to them,

fairness to the civilian employees, and, most of all, fairness to the men and women in the services who deserve to have the best trained, highly skilled, highly motivated workers working on the various products that are necessary to keep our Nation secure.

They deserve the best. We want the best. This decision ought to be based upon the best and not about who can provide the least health benefits to workers in this country. That is the issue. The issue is fairness. Hopefully, this amendment will be accepted.

I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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