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Press Conference with Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bernard Sanders (I-VT) - Employment Situation Summary, Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2008


Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. MENENDEZ: Good morning, everyone. I'm Senator Bob Menendez, and we're joined by Senator Sanders.

Today we got a lot of bad news. Last month, 80,000 American jobs were cut. February's job losses were increased by 67,000. All told, there are 232,000 fewer jobs than there were three months ago. And on top of that, the unemployment rate shot up to 5.1 percent.

This report is especially harsh, because people are feeling the squeeze in so many ways. Between out-of-control mortgage payments, rising gas prices, rising food prices and rising costs of health care, Americans might feel the need to have two or three jobs to pay the bills.

Now thousands more Americans don't even have one job and thousands more feel like they may not have one for long. The jobs report answers some important questions about our economy.

Are tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans creating jobs for the middle class? The 80,000 American jobs that vanished last month say no.

Is a war in Iraq that's expected to cost our country $3 trillion, much of which we are borrowing from countries such as China, creating jobs for the middle class? 80,000 fewer jobs say no.

Is ignoring the housing crisis, which is the root of this economic crisis, a good economic strategy?

Today there are 80,000 more reasons why it is not.

This week the chairman of the Federal Reserve finally came to the same conclusion that many of us have had for a while: that yes, we are in the dangers of a recession. And I think, with these numbers, as far as I'm concerned, there is a recession. And I think when you hear from Senator Sanders, who has some novel insights based on a(n) enterprise he put up on his website, you're going to hear from Americans -- they've been far ahead from the Congress in knowing that a recession is here.

So there's no surprise to those on Main Street who have already been bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. We have been brought to this point by seven years of Bush economics, in which helping the wealthy dodge taxes, continuing a pointless war in Iraq and hitting the snooze button on the alarming housing crisis somehow makes sense. It's an economic system in which the federal government rushes to rescue a main Wall Street investment bank like firefighters to a five- alarm blaze, but barely lifts a finger for more than a year while homeowners watch their dreams go up in smoke. And it's an economic system that has the American public asking its government, who are you working for?

This plunge into what many experts are convinced is a recession was ultimately triggered by the tsunami of foreclosures that has washed away the dreams of millions of American homeowners and is rushing towards millions more. It is a crisis that the administration and regulators first wanted to ignore, then only could take baby steps to address.

That's why we are acting, as Senate Democrats, and we will continue to act. We don't have a magic wand to wave and make it all go away in a short time. Nobody does. But there are steps to take to help homeowners keep their houses and help others to buy new ones. The housing bill we are working on is a solid start that will bring relief to homeowners with bad loans, but it's just one piece of a broader economic recovery process in which we will take every opportunity afforded to us to make our economy whole.

Ultimately, creating good jobs for American workers is going to mean asking ourselves some serious questions. What are we doing to invest in our workforce? What are we doing to produce the next generation of engineers and scientists and doctors and programmers with the skills to compete in the global economy? And instead of staying the course economically, we need to focus on creating green- collar jobs and educating our workforce to be competitive. Implementing policies that spur green industries will be a blessing for our job market, and in the process will cut the liquid umbilical cord of oil, bringing down prices at the gas pump and saving Americans money.

We need to make a real investment in education, so we can be competitive, and produce goods and services here at home that world wants to buy. And in the short term, we need to take other steps to relieve the financial pressure on middle-class households, like shoring up the housing market and bringing down the cost of health care.

A recent poll has shown that a large group of Americans think that the best years for jobs are behind us. If we continue with the Bush economic plan, that may be true, but it doesn't have to be. Now, more than ever, the pressure is on all of us to make sure we innovate, educate and invest to make the sure -- to make sure, I should say, that the best is yet to come.

And that's what Senate Democrats are committed to.

Let me have Senator Sanders give you a few insights on his constituents.

SEN. SANDERS: I want to thank Senator Menendez for allowing me to join him this morning. And I concur with what he has said.

I just want to tell you a story which really kind of blew me away. I represent the state of Vermont, one of the smallest states in the country -- about 630,000 people. And the truth is that the people in Vermont are pretty shy. People don't like to go around talking about all of their problems. As often as not, well, people will say, "Well, you know, it may be hard for me, but it's really harder for the other guy. And I don't want to talk about it."

Just the other day, we did for the first time -- never done this before -- we put up on our website a little video. And we're having some economic meetings in the state tomorrow, as a matter of fact. And what I said is, "Look. Why don't you -- If you want to join us, come to these meetings -- if you want to sit on a panel. Tell us what's going on in the middle class. Tell us what's going on in the lives of working people. What is your own personal experience?"

Well, what happened in a 24-hour period is we had 240 responses. And then this morning I walked in and my secretary said we had another 60 responses. That not -- may not seem a whole lot compared to the Drudge Report or something like that. We're a small state. I've never seen anything like it.

And if you read what people are saying -- I couldn't read it. I started reading them last night, and I stopped reading it. It was just too sad and too depressing. These are hardworking people and they don't know what is happening to them. There are people who have lost their jobs. And then they're trying to get another job -- we're a rural state, takes a long time -- you have to travel a distance. They don't have the money to put into the gas tank to buy the gas they need to go out and get another job. They are people who can't afford, in our climate -- it's cold in Vermont -- to heat their homes. There are people who have worked their whole lives to send their kids to college, and they may not be able to keep their kids in college who were doing so well. I mean, these are the heart -- it's one thing to hear people speaking from their heart and another thing to hear the speeches on the floor of the Senate.

So I just wanted to concur with Senator Menendez and say there is something -- if you add up what's going on in this country today in terms of the cost of health care, the cost of home heating oil, the cost of gasoline to get to work, the fact that jobs and incomes -- good-paying jobs are being lost and incomes are going down. You add these things up, it is not surprising that 81 percent of the people in the New York Times poll said this country is going in the wrong direction.

So if people want more information, I think we'll have a lot of these statements up on our website. But I was just stunned by what I heard in the state of Vermont, and that -- and by the way, our state is not the worst off in the country. But something is going on, and it is clear that this Congress has got to start standing up for working people, rather than the big money interests who have dominated this institution for so many years.

Senator, thanks very much.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Thank you.


Q Senator Menendez, I interviewed Labor Secretary Chao just a few minutes ago, and she characterized these numbers as a gradual softening of the labor market. I was interested to hear your take on that.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Well, you know, the administration has been in denial for some time on a variety of core economic issues. A year ago this past March, at a Senate Banking Committee hearing, which I serve on, I said we were going to have a tsunami -- was my words -- of foreclosures, and the administration gave it the same characterization that Secretary Chao just gave you: It's about a softening. And they told me that I was overexaggerating.

Well, the reality is, we have not even seen the crest of that tsunami. And I wish they had been right and I had been wrong. And once again, here we are, where the administration describes it as a softening. Ask the citizens of Vermont that Senator Sanders just talked about, or in my home state of New Jersey. I can tell you that the citizens of our country have known for a while that we are in a recession, that they are hurting, and they don't believe it's a softening. They believe it's a body blow.


SEN. SANDERS: Let me respond to your question, because it really touches on a very profound issue. To say the least, the Bush administration has been disingenuous on many issues, and this is one of them.

It didn't take the current recession or the foreclosure crisis to tell some of us that the middle class in this country is collapsing. And for people to talk about a "gradual decline," or whatever terminology they use, is an insult to the American people. Now you tell me. Since Bush has been in present -- been in office, 5 million more people have slipped into poverty. Median family income is significantly lower than when he came into office. Eight million Americans have lost their health insurance. Three million Americans have lost their pensions. And the only people who have seen a significant increase in their incomes are the top 1 percent. Now how in God's name could anyone say this is a "gradual decline"?

The truth of the matter is, the middle class in America is collapsing today. And what we're seeing just now is just an increase in the problem, significant increase from foreclosures.

But this has been going on year after year after year. And it really bothers me that the Bush administration continues this mythology where "basically, things have been pretty strong; now we have some minor problems." That is absolutely untrue.

Q Senator Sanders, what do you make of this housing bill? There are a lot of people, you know, with the consumer -- or consumer groups think that it's, you know, giving giveaways to banks and home builders, while the provisions to help the people you're talking about are really quite modest. What --

SEN. SANDERS: No, I agree with those concerns. I think it's a step forward, but I think we've got a lot more to do to protect homeowners and the working families who are hearing (sic) these problems. I introduced an amendment the other day -- it remains to be seen whether it will be germane -- dealing with a very simple issue. I'm sure that Senator Menendez runs into the same problem. How in God's name does it happen that people in this country are paying 25 (percent), 30 percent interest rates on their credit card at a time when the Fed is lowering interest rates? Do we have the courage to stand up to the financial institutions, to credit companies and the banks and lower interest rates? Well, that would be an enormous help.

Go out, and the American people think -- ask them whether they think it's appropriate that we're paying 25 (percent) to 30 percent outrageous mortgage interest rates, credit card interest rates.

So we've got a lot to do. It's a start, but nowhere near enough, in my view.

Q With the ideological split here in the Senate, which is 51- 49, I mean, what's the reality that you get more done this year to help stem the tide of foreclosures?

SEN. MENENDEZ: Well, that's why the package that we have is, you know -- part of our challenge here is the art of the possible, which is why we need to have more Democrats in the United States Senate who would have a much more robust package.

But for the interim, having $10 billion to help families refinance out of loans is significant. To have $100 million for counseling to avoid the risk of foreclosure or deal with foreclosure is significant. I'm cosponsoring an amendment with Senator Schumer to bring that up to $200 million. I hope we can succeed. You know, that -- protecting veterans from foreclosure is significant. So, you know -- and having municipalities be able to have $4 billion for them to be able to capture foreclosed properties, so that they can either work with the homeowner or make sure that in fact we don't see a devastating effect of a cascading amount of property values going down.

So these are all in this bill, and while, you know, certainly many of us would want to see a more robust bill, this is the art of the possible.

And for so long as there is the ability of our Republican colleagues to insist on 60-vote thresholds, this is the challenge.

I think we're making a very significant step forward. And I look forward to continuing to try to find other ways, as we produce appropriation bills and other efforts, and looking at how we can continue to help the American people, particularly middle class, be able to meet the challenges of this economy.

Q You're going to try to add to the 100 million again, aren't you, before you vote, before a final vote?


Q You were missing 11. (Off mike.) Are you going to try again?

SEN. MENENDEZ: We are going to try again.

Q (Off mike.) There's an urgency of the moment here.

Is there anything more that can be done, fingerpointing to the White House, with the White House saying it's a soft economy? Is there something urgent that can be done?

(Cross talk.)

SEN. MENENDEZ: Well, that's why we've been, you know, we've been working on getting this housing, you know --

Look, the economy, in my view, has two major consequences to it. One is long-term. But this president, fueled by Republican majorities until this Congress, has racked up the greatest debt the nation has ever known. And that has long-term economic consequences.

And that has been fueled largely not by what the administration would have us believe, i.e., the war in Iraq or September 11th. It's been fueled by the tax cuts, to the wealthiest people in the country, that obviously haven't produced the economic paradigm that they suggested would, that we would have a robust economy where middle class families would achieve employment and opportunity.

So you know, that's the first problem. That's a longer-term problem. And that's why, as a member of the Senate Budget Committee, I'm proud that our budget moves us back to balanced budgets and begin to reduce deficits.

Secondly our immediacy is the mortgage crisis. And the mortgage crisis is at the core of the immediate economic consequences. That's why we have been pushing this package, even before the Senate recess of two weeks ago, and were stalled out in doing so. And that's why we are back at it again.

Now, we're glad that we've been able to proceed. We want this to be as expeditious as possible, to move it and to ultimately get a reconciliation with the House and then bring it to the president's desk. Because that could be the single most important thing we can do in the immediacy.

We will continue to look at other ways, such as in energy. Senator Sanders and I have successfully sponsored an amendment, that was adopted in the last energy bill, that would put nearly $2 billion in the hands of municipalities to deal with energy issues and energy efficiency and savings, that would inure to people's tax bills.

That's another element of -- there are many different elements. We're going to try to pursue all of them within the context, again -- that, you know, while we may want to just brush it aside, there is an ideological divide here that has another divide to it of 60 votes. And we will continue to push the outer limits of what we can do and challenge them to join us as much as possible.

Q (In Spanish.)

SEN. MENENDEZ: I'm going to say the same thing I said in English -- that's for all you who may be wondering. His question's at the core of what we started here.

(In Spanish.)

Anyone else?

Thank you all very much. Have a good weekend.

Q (In Spanish.)

SEN. MENENDEZ: (In Spanish.)

Q (In Spanish.)

SEN. MENENDEZ: (In Spanish.)

Q (In Spanish.)

SEN. MENENDEZ: (In Spanish.)

Thank you very much.

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