Congressman John B. Larson (CT-01) and Congressman Xavier Becerra (CA-31) held a press avail after the Democratic Caucus meeting today on the need for Congress to pass an extension of middle class tax relief and unemployment insurance to help the millions of Americans struggling today. Below is the transcript:
Rep. Larson: Good morning and I hope everybody treated their significant others well yesterday for Valentine's Day. Remember the President did give you a reminder yesterday at his press conference so I hope everybody made out well.
I'm honored to be here this morning with our Vice Chair, Xavier Becerra, who is of course one of our conferees and you'll be hearing from him shortly. And I just wanted to commend him and the conferees on their outstanding effort.
We are certainly heartened by the fact that the Republicans have come around with regard to the payroll tax issue. This is an enormous victory for the American people, and clearly an enormous win for the President of the United States. We thank him for his persistency. We thank him for his continued involvement and commitment and I think being out there on the hustings certainly fortified the efforts of our working group and our conferees here on the Hill. We're pleased to see that Americans will be getting the kind of relief that they need. It's not entirely clear, but it seems with respect to unemployment and also what is commonly referred to as the doc fix, which we like to refer to as making sure that the elderly are going to be able to get the kind of service and the visitations that they need and therefore the screenings and the healthcare that they need from doctors, albeit we would have preferred a much longer version of that.
So with that, while we continue to push to make sure we bring the President's jobs bill to the Floor, this is a positive step in Congress and I think it'll be viewed as that all around the country. Let us hope that the Republicans can take this deal to their Conference and come back and we can pass legislation here. I think that will send a very strong message for the country about Congress as an institution.
With that, let me turn it over to the Vice-Chair of our Caucus and one of our leading conferees, Xavier Becerra.
Rep. Becerra: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much and thank you for the leadership that you have exerted in our Caucus to try to keep us together and focused. I remember back last year when it was as a result of your leadership that the Democrats in the House, and I think Democrats generally, focused on jobs under the Super Committee's work and continue to stress the need to make sure that jobs was our number one focus here in Congress. So I thank you Mr. Chairman for your work in that regard.
It seems that if you take a look at how we started this conference, Democrats said from the very beginning we have three assignments: to extend the payroll tax cut for 160 million working Americans, to make sure that Americans who have lost their job through no fault of their own are not punished as a result of this economic recession that we've been facing, and that we extend their unemployment benefits, as had been done for two months, and that we made sure that seniors in America weren't asked to pay the price for doctors leaving the Medicare program because they were not being adequately reimbursed by the system. Those were the three main principles of our mission. And we articulated that from the beginning.
It seemed for a while that this conference might bog down on extraneous, controversial issues that were being put forward by our Republican colleagues. They talked about inserting a issue that was controversial on a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline. They talked about including reductions in protections of our air and water in how we treated boilers and incineration plants. They talked about requiring that all workers, in order to qualify for their insurance benefits, must go through drug testing, whether or not they'd ever taken a single drug in their life. And all these controversial matters took up quite a bit of our time.
It now appears that on those three main issues, that we've made progress and that is good. The devil certainly is in the detail of any final deal and certainly as a conferee I'll want to take a close look at the actual language of any deal as it now seems to be taking shape. But I think at least we can say as Democrats, what we fought to secure, which was the payroll tax cut for 160 million working families will move forward, that we will continue to extend unemployment insurance to Americans who have lost their job through no fault of their own, and we will make sure that seniors who right now have a doctor of their choice under Medicare will continue to do so because we'll try to adequately reimburse doctors in America who are willing to take on seniors under Medicare. Those seem to be the most important aspects of a deal that seems to be working its way through, and we hope to see the details soon. But I want to thank the leadership in the House, I want to thank the Chairman of our Caucus, and all those who helped the five conferees selected in the House on the Democratic side for giving us good guidance and direction on how to proceed in this particular conference.
Rep. Larson: Thank you very much and we'll take a few questions. We're on our way to a Ways and Means Committee meeting but--
Q: Specifically what remains unresolved?
Rep. Becerra: I think the details on how some of this will actually play out - I know on the unemployment insurance side, Democrats have said that we should extend the insurance benefits that workers have been receiving. Republicans have talked about cutting those benefits. We know that in terms of how you handle the cost of this entire package there's been some good compromise. Republicans, who at one point alleged that by not paying for the payroll tax holiday that we would endanger social security, now they are saying they are willing to move forward without paying for the payroll tax cut holiday and they are not saying that they are jeopardizing Social Security. So I think the myth that we would have jeopardized Social Security has now been put to rest, which is good.
There is concern on the part, at least of this particular conferee, that we would be changing precedent if we ask working Americans to take a pay cut to pay for Unemployment Insurance benefits for those who have lost their job through no fault of their own.
But we need to see the details of exactly how we will pay some of these provisions and how some of these will play out, especially with regard to the Unemployment Insurance that workers would receive.
Q: It looks like the plan might be somewhere in the 70s, in terms of Unemployment Insurance benefits--the extension. Is that something that House Democrats could go for if that's reduced from 99 to somewhere in the 70s?
Rep. Becerra: The Chairman would probably want to answer this as well, but I would say this: Americans who are working until this recession should not be asked to pay a price because some in Congress -- some politicians in Congress -- are unwilling to extend those benefits beyond what is reasonably needed to get them back to work.
The cut in benefits from what they currently are to something dramatically less, for me, would be unacceptable. I don't believe the number would be the maximum number you just mentioned and it would differ for states. Some states have been hit harder and there are a lot of American workers in some states who have been unemployed for a longer period of time. And so that's where I said the devil is in the details of exactly how this would play out.
There are some states who are fortunate and don't have high levels of unemployment and what we want to make sure of, though, is that any American who's looking for work, making every effort to get back on his or her feet has that opportunity to do so and at the same time we got to remember that these unemployment benefits -- insurance benefits -- make it possible for Americans to continue feed their families, which keeps the economy, believe it or not, moving. So we're hoping to see the details.
Rep. Larson: We still regard unemployment as an emergency and that's how it's always been looked at on both sides of aisle over time. And you have to think to yourself: how much sense does it make, really, to pull the rug out from under someone who is out looking for a job and have them lose their unemployment benefit? Where do they go next?
They would then go to TANF under our rules and under our laws within our states, which, of course, is an entitlement program. So, the so called "savings" that are trying to be achieved here aren't available. So doesn't it make more sense to keep people out there in the hunt for a job, with emergency money provided by Unemployment Insurance then sending somebody to a TANF program.
So we continue -- we would of course prefer the 99 weeks, etc, but whatever happens, ultimately, will be a matter of discussion between the conferees and, ultimately, on the floors of both chambers.
One more question, then we've really got to go.
Q: Republicans and Democratic staff have been putting out different numbers for the duration of benefits --73 and 75 from Democrats and Republicans have been saying 60.
Rep. Larson: We agree with the Democrats, of course.
Rep. Becerra: That's where, as I said, the devil is in the details.
Q: There no concern that there isn't a deal on this since the sides are so far apart?
Rep. Becerra: I remember when I was serving on the Super committee how we kept on hearing the news that there was a deal; I remember when I was on the Bowles-Simpsons Commission we were hearing that we were going to get the two-thirds vote necessary to get the deal. And I have heard we've got a deal wrapped up on the payroll tax cut conference. I've learned to wait until I see the deal to know that there's a deal and I'd like to make sure I get to read to the fine print in any deal, because that's where Americans will be concerned.
We make look at this -- or some politicians make look at this -- from a global perspective. I think most Americans are looking at just how this is going to impact their family and are we really doing something to try and help boost the American economy. I think we have to see the details and any number of things are being discussed and any number of things are being drafted to try and put into writing what might be a final deal.
And, ultimately, we still have to get a vote out of the conference and get the President to sign it after a Congress will pass it. We're still a long ways from getting there, but certainly we've made progress in that the gamesmanship that was played in trying to include controversial and extraneous measures in this very important conference report, at least seem to be almost over.
Q: If it's a long ways it doesn't seem like there's going to be a today announcement?
Rep. Larson: Listen, we've seen this play before. So, as the Vice Chair has pointed out: we sincerely hope that when Mr. Boehner emerges from his conference that there will be unanimity on that side and, in fact, a deal would have been struck, which is--we've already said--we think would be a great thing for the American people and certainly an enormous win the President, because he's been so out hustings on this issue.
But, as the Irish say, "It's a long way to Tipperary."As you all painfully know, things have had the ability to change around here rather rapidly when it appears that a deal has been struck and then it appears that that deal is no longer in place. We hope, and the signs seem to point that way and now we can only wish them well on the other side and thank them for coming to their senses on these very important issues. Thank you so much.