Madam President, this is a critical moment. Over the next few weeks, serious choices must be made about how our nation spends its money, about our national budget. And at its heart, a budget is a statement of values. A budget shows the world what we care about, what we prioritize, what we invest in, how we intend to build our future. And everyone who comes to this chamber comes with their own values, representing their own state. But each of us also knows we have to find a way to bridge those divides to work together to solve the enormous fiscal challenges that we face as a nation. That means addressing the more than $500 billion in automatic spending cuts, tax increases, and other fiscal changes all scheduled to take place at the beginning of the next year and known collectively as the fiscal cliff.
We find ourselves at the edge of this cliff because of our shared beliefs that deficits matter and that we can't keep spending money that we don't have. As it stands today, our deficit and debt are unsustainable. Last year we ran a budget deficit of well over a trillion dollars, and we now have a national debt that exceeds $16 trillion. If we don't get these numbers under control, interest payments will inevitably skyrocket, taking up a larger and larger percentage of our budget until they crowd out other critical, pro-growth investments in our country's competitiveness and the essential social safety net that puts a circle of protection around the most vulnerable in our country. Madam President, I don't believe either one of us wants to put those two vital things at risk.
When a budget is so out of balance we have to take a hard look at both the money coming in and the money going out. The only way to get back on track, in my view, is to address both sides of this equation--revenue and spending. We have to find a balanced solution that combines tough spending cuts with reforms to our tax code that bring in more revenue, while also ensuring fairness to taxpayers. There is, Madam President, real momentum, I believe, for this kind of big, balanced, bipartisan solution for the first time in a long time.
We have seen some courageous Republicans in both the House and Senate recently stand up and say that revenue has to be on the table and a few even that an increase in tax rates for the wealthiest Americans may be necessary to get a budget deal that moves us forward. They know what we all know--that, frankly, even the most drastic across-the-board spending cuts, like the kinds contained in the sequester that will kick in in January, won't save enough to close the budget gap. At the same time, across-the-board, meat ax cuts to domestic programs violate some of our basic American values by failing to protect the most vulnerable in our society, those who, I believe, our values call us to put a circle of protection around, even in this most difficult recovery.
Risking public safety, for example, by cutting funding for cops and firefighters or leaving families out in the cold this winter by cutting heating assistance to low-income seniors--these are not American values. They are not the best way to solve our fiscal challenge. The truth is those programs specifically have already been cut, more than I would ever have liked to have seen. The Budget Control Act passed last year made a dramatic trillion dollars in spending cuts over the coming decade, which fell like an ax on some community-based programs that Delaware families depend and which I used as county executive, in partnership with our community, to fight for the disabled, for affordable housing and for low-income heating assistance programs.
So let's not watch this moment pass us by. Let's instead seize the opportunity before us and start finding areas where, across the aisle and between the chambers of the Senate and the House, we can agree. One of those areas of agreement, Madam President, is the need to extend tax cuts for the middle class, for families and small businesses still working their way out of the deep hole of the financial collapse of 2008 and still making their way through this recovery.
No one from either party, the House or Senate, or any state in this country, wants to raise taxes on middle-class families and small businesses. Families like Deborah's.
Deborah is a single mother in Wilmington, DE--my hometown--who is working a full-time job and a part-time job on top of that just to make ends meet. She wrote to my office, concerned about tax increases and this fiscal cliff. She said ``the middle class is the heart and soul of this country--what keeps it going and growing. What else can we be hit with? I know that I cannot take on anything more financially.''
So my first call today, Madam President, is let's give Deborah and families like hers in Delaware and around the country the certainty, before we end this calendar year, of knowing their taxes will not go up in 26 days when the calendar turns to 2013. One way to do that is for the House to take up and pass legislation this body has already considered and passed in a bipartisan way that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for 98 percent of families and 97 percent of small businesses, while also achieving nearly a trillion dollars in debt and deficit reduction.
This bill extends tax cuts that would otherwise expire for all Americans who earn income and for all small businesses that earn revenue but just on the first $200,000 of individual income or $250,000 in family income.
Tax rates on income over and above $ 1/4 million a year would revert to the levels of the Clinton administration, the time of enormous economic growth and prosperity.
This one step would blunt the impact of the fiscal cliff for the vast majority of Americans and give them the certainty they so badly need. It would also be a serious down payment on meaningful deficit reduction and ensure that our budget more closely reflects our values, our fundamental belief in the American Dream and that if you work hard, you can still get ahead.
Leading Republicans in the House and the Senate, including Senator Snowe and Congressman Cole, have urged the House to move forward and pass this bill to provide badly needed security and certainty to middle-class families before the end of this year. I join their call, but let's not stop there. Let's keep going and find additional areas of compromise and constructive common ground. To provide the business community with the certainty they need to plan the deployment and investment of capital so they can get Americans back to work. To provide the market with certainty to sustain this recovery, while continuing to invest in our future. And for families, who need to know their budget future and who need to be able to have confidence to take risks, to invest in growth, to educate their children, to buy a larger home, to take care of their children and their parents. To find the kind of balanced, bipartisan, long-term solution we need is to find a solution to all of these problems.
It's only by coming together over the next few weeks--not as Republicans and Democrats but as Americans--that we can avoid a fiscal calamity that was entirely predictable, and the result of a decade of unresolved budget fighting in this chamber. For both parties, simply blaming the other side and waiting for the next election to give us a stronger mandate is no longer a tolerable or sustainable path forward. Working together, in my view, Madam President, is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
Americans have faced tough times before, but our strength has always been our unity and in our ability to come together. It is my hope, my prayer that faced with the challenge of the impending fiscal cliff, we can do it again.