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Public Statements

Executive Session

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. LEAHY. Madam President, I want to begin by recognizing a significant achievement by the senior Senator from Iowa, our ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Today Senator Grassley has served for 31 years, 11 months, and 6 days as a member of our Committee. His tenure now exceeds that of our friend, former chairman, longtime member, and current Vice President, Joe Biden. Senator Grassley is now the sixth longest-serving member in the history of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Grassley and I know how the Committee should operate in its best traditions. I will continue to work with him to achieve all we can for the American people.

Today, the Senate will finally be allowed to vote on the nominations of Jesus Bernal to fill a judicial emergency vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and John Dowdell to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. Both of these nominees were voted out of the Judiciary Committee by voice vote before the August recess and should have been confirmed months ago. These confirmations today will demonstrate that there was no good reason for the delay--just more partisan delay for delay's sake. This unnecessary obstruction is particularly egregious in connection with Jesus Bernal's nomination because it perpetuated a judicial emergency vacancy since the middle of July for no good reason and to the detriment of the people of Los Angeles and the Central District of California.

Also disconcerting is the Senate Republicans' continuing filibuster against another Oklahoma nominee. Although he had had the support of his two Republican home State Senators, Senate Republicans filibustered in July the nomination of Robert Bacharach of Oklahoma to a judgeship on the Tenth Circuit. Senate Republicans continue to object to voting on this nomination and are apparently intent on stopping his confirmation for the remainder of the year. This, despite the reassuring comments made by Republican Senators when they joined the filibuster in September and excused their participation by saying that after the election he would receive Senate action. With the American people's reelection of President Obama there is no good purpose to be served by this further delay. But Robert Bacharach and nearly a dozen judicial nominees, who could be confirmed and who would fill four circuit court vacancies and five additional judicial emergency vacancies, are being forced to wait until next year--or perhaps forever--by the Senate Republican leadership. Among those nominations is that of William Orrick III to fill another judicial emergency vacancy in the Northern District of California and that of Brian Davis to fill a judicial emergency vacancy in the Middle District of Florida.

A perceptive and long-time observer of these matters is Professor Carl Tobias. I ask that a copy of his recent article entitled ``Obama, Senate Must Fill Judicial Vacancies'' from The Miami Herald be included in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.

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Mr. LEAHY. He recently wrote how these vacancies on our Federal trial courts ``erode speedy, economical and fair case resolution.'' He correctly points out that this President, unlike his predecessor, ``assiduously'' consults with home State Senators from both parties. Senate Republicans nonetheless stall confirmations virtually across the board. For example, they are filibustering the Bacharach nomination from Oklahoma and the Kayatta nomination from Maine, despite the support of Republican home state Senators.

Professor Tobias observes that the judicial nominees of President Obama are ``noncontroversial . . . of balanced temperament, who are intelligent, ethical, industrious, independent and diverse vis a vis ethnicity, gender and ideology.'' None of these characteristics or their outstanding qualifications matter to Senate Republicans intent on obstruction. The explanations that Republicans offer for their unprecedented stalling of nominees with bipartisan support, indicate that Republicans are fixated on a warped sense of partisan payback. They recognize none of the distinctions with the circumstances in 2004 when President Bush was seeking to pack the Federal courts with conservative activist ideologues and Senate Republicans ran roughshod over Senate practices and traditions. They ignore the history since 2004, the resolution of the impasse by recognition of a standard limiting filibusters only to situations of ``exceptional circumstances,'' or the marked difference in the role they have been accorded by President Obama and me in connection with his judicial nominations from their home States.

After this vote, the Senate remains backlogged with 18 judicial nominations reported by the Judiciary Committee, including 13 nominations from before the August recess. They should be confirmed before the Senate adjourns for the year. If the Senate were allowed to act in the best interests of the American people, it would vote to confirm these nominees and reduce the judicial vacancies that are plaguing our Federal courts and that delay justice for the American people. Sadly, it appears that Senate Republicans will persist in the bad practices they have followed since President Obama was elected and insist on stalling nearly a dozen judicial nominees who could and should be confirmed before the Senate adjourns this month.

By this point in President Bush's first term we had reduced judicial vacancies to 28. In stark contrast, there are still close to 80 judicial vacancies today. If the Senate were allowed to confirm the 20 judicial nominations currently pending, we could take a significant step forward by filling more than one-quarter of current vacancies and could reduce vacancies around the country below 60 for the first time since President Obama took office. Even that would be twice as many vacancies as existed toward the end of President Bush's first term.

That so many judicial nominations have been delayed by Senate Republicans into this lameduck session need not prevent the Senate from doing what is right for the American people. Those who contend that it would be ``unprecedented'' to confirm long-stalled nominations in this lameduck session are wrong. The fact is that from 1980 until this year, when a lameduck session followed a presidential election, every single judicial nominee reported with bipartisan Judiciary Committee support has been confirmed. That is the precedent that Senate Republicans are breaking. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, no consensus nominee reported prior to the August recess has ever been denied a vote--before now. That is something Senate Democrats have not done in any lameduck session, whether after a presidential or midterm election.

Senate Democrats allowed votes on 20 of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees, including three circuit court nominees, in the lameduck session after the elections in 2002. I remember I was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee who moved forward with those votes, including one on a very controversial circuit court nominee. The Senate proceeded to confirm judicial nominees in lameduck sessions after the elections in 2004 and 2006. In 2006 that included confirming another circuit court nominee. We proceeded to confirm 19 judicial nominees in the lameduck session after the elections in 2010, including five circuit court nominees.

That is our history and recent precedent. Those who contend that judicial confirmation votes during lameduck sessions do not take place are wrong. I have urged the Senate Republican leadership to reassess its damaging tactics, but apparently in vain. Their new precedent is bad for the Senate, the Federal courts and, most importantly, for the American people.

Further, their partisan spin on the past does nothing to help fill longstanding vacancies on our Federal courts, which are in dire need of additional assistance. Arguments about past Senate practice do not help the American people obtain justice. There are no good reasons to hold up the judicial nominations currently being stalled on the Senate Executive Calendar. A wrongheaded desire for partisan payback for some imagined offense from years ago is no good reason. A continuing effort to gum up the workings of the Senate and to delay Senate action on additional judicial nominees next year is no good reason.

It is past time for votes on the four circuit nominees and the other 14 district court nominees reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee. When we have consensus nominees before us who can fill judicial vacancies, especially judicial emergency vacancies, the Senate should be taking action on these nominations to help the American people. Doing so is consistent with Senate precedent, and it is right. Let us do our jobs so that all Americans can have access to justice.

John Dowdell is nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. He is currently a shareholder and director at the Tulsa law firm of Norman Wohlgemuth Chandler & Dowdell, where he has worked for nearly 30 years. After law school he served as a law clerk to Judge William J. Holloway, Jr. on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. His nomination was reported nearly unanimously by the Judiciary Committee last June.

Jesus Bernal is nominated to fill a judicial emergency vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Since 1996 he has served as a Deputy Federal Public Defender and is currently the Directing Attorney in the Riverside Branch Office. After graduating from law school he served as a law clerk to Judge David V. Kenyon of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. His nomination was reported by voice vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee last July.

Today, we are finally being allowed to vote on two consensus nominees who were stalled for months for no good reason.

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Mr. LEAHY. Madam President, no matter what calendar one goes by, we are nearing the end of this Congress. We have only a few short weeks to end the stalemate and pass a farm bill. For months, House leaders have blocked a vote on a bipartisan farm bill. We passed in this body, across the political spectrum--Republicans and Democrats alike--a bill that saved tens of billions of dollars. However, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives will not allow it to come to a vote. Much is at stake--from rural communities to farmers who need the certainty that a farm bill extension would mean. I have said a lot of times on this floor that farming cannot be put on hold. We can't tell a farmer: Well, hold those crops for a couple of months while we wait to see what we are doing. Don't milk those cows for a few months until we figure out whether the Congress will get its act together on a farm bill. It doesn't work that way. Farmers already cope with innumerable variables in running their businesses. The last thing they need is for Congress to needlessly compound the uncertainty through weeks of delay and obstruction.

The Senate has passed a bipartisan bill under the leadership of the chair of our committee, Senator Stabenow. We passed a bipartisan bill that renews the charter for basic agriculture, nutrition, and conservation programs, while saving taxpayers $23 billion. What I have been told privately is that if the House leaders would permit a vote, this bill would pass in the House. Just as Republicans and Democrats came together in this body, they would in the other body. Passing it would end this corrosive stalemate, while contributing billions of dollars to deficit reduction. Unfortunately, it appears the nutrition programs that help millions of our most vulnerable fellow Americans are the latest excuse for preventing a House vote to get the farm bill done. In this, the wealthiest, most powerful Nation on Earth, some are saying they will hold this up because we have hungry people who need the support our nutrition programs provide.

With so many Americans still struggling to put food on the table, it is not only regrettable, but more than that, it is inexcusable that some House Republicans have turned to slashing central nutrition help for struggling Americans as a means to prevent action on the farm bill. Ensuring that these programs can continue to serve Vermonters and all Americans, especially those in need, is a key part of enacting a strong farm bill for this economy. It is a reality recognized by the Senate-passed farm bill. Unfortunately, consideration of the farm bill is not the first time this Congress has been forced to debate legislation that will greatly reduce the ability of the neediest among us to put food on the table for their families. Bills and amendments have been proposed that would cut tens of billions of dollars from the food stamp program, eliminating nutrition assistance for millions of Americans and denying hundreds of thousands of American children school meals. I am proud that time and again during this Congress the Senate has defeated such proposals. I will continue to help fight back against such attacks.

The bipartisan Senate-passed farm bill makes an investment in American agriculture that benefits our producers, our dairy farmers, our rural communities, our Main Street businesses, our taxpayers, and our consumers. Now it is being held hostage by House Republicans who are demanding Draconian cuts in food assistance programs just as we are coming out of the worst recession in generations. They are preventing final action on a bill that touches every community and millions of our fellow citizens across the Nation. It is ironic that during this holiday season, opponents of nutrition programs that help the poor are insisting on making it drastically more difficult, or impossible, for these families and their children to simply eat.

No Member of the Senate, no Member of the House of Representatives goes hungry except by choice. None of us do. We don't know what that is like. We don't go home and look at our children and say: We can't feed you tonight; hold on for another day. I know you are hungry. I know you are crying. I know you can't sleep. But we can't feed you today. None of us face that. But I can tell my colleagues that there are people in every single State we represent where that is their reality.

Those advocating for these drastic cuts couldn't have chosen a worse time. As winter approaches, Vermonters and others across the country are going to find the demands for paying for heat, electricity, and food a large strain on their family's budget. All this is before we even take into account those areas where they are recovering from such terrible natural disasters and those communities who probably face disasters in the future. I know there are Vermonters, as there are so many other Americans, who struggle every day to make ends meet and are forced to make tough decisions about whether to pay for rent or heat or medications or food. We are talking about essentials.

The Presiding Officer and I represent two of the most

beautiful States in this country, but we also know that both our States can get very cold in the wintertime. When it is 5 and 10 below zero, heat is not a luxury and food shouldn't be a luxury. When it is 5 below zero, the choice should not be, can we heat or can we eat? This in America? That is wrong.

While the economy continues to recover, and we hope it will, we still have many Americans who rely on basic assistance to get by each month. Thankfully, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has helped fill the gap. It offers the most comprehensive assistance available to the poorest Americans.

No one can deny the effects of hunger on Americans, especially children. Children who live in food insecure homes are at a greater risk of developmental delays, poor academic performance, nutrient deficiencies, obesity, and depression. Yet participation in food assistance programs turns these statistics on their head. Federal nutrition programs have been shown to lessen the risk that a child will develop health problems, and they are associated with decreases in the incidence of child abuse. Children from families who receive SNAP have higher achievement in math and reading. They have improved behavior, social interactions, and diet quality than children who go without this nutrition help.

It is unfortunate that during this fall's campaign, we saw candidates who were intent on spreading misconceptions about a program that lifts millions of Americans above the poverty line each year. The contention that SNAP beneficiaries are largely out-of-work Americans is far from accurate. Two-thirds of the beneficiaries are children, the disabled, or the elderly who cannot be expected to work. The remaining participants are subjected to rigorous work requirements in order to receive continuing benefits. And while SNAP offers crucial support to a family's grocery expenses, the benefits far from cover all of a family's food needs. With a benefit average of $1.25 per person, per meal, it is understandable that families typically fall short on benefits by the middle of the month.

Vermont has done a remarkable job at urging Vermonters to register for our SNAP program. We call it 3Squares. But the unfortunate reality is that thousands of Vermonters continue to go without food they could receive. I hear from Vermont families who participate in 3Squares about the importance of Federal food assistance. Parents have told me they ignore their own hunger to ensure their kids are fed, but they don't know how they can cope if benefits are cut further. Kathy, a mother from Barre, VT, where my father was born, says her child has come to her crying, wondering whether they will have enough money for food. Others have noted that expenses for necessities, such as heating and rent, are fixed costs. When Three Squares benefits run out, skipping breakfast or lunch is the only way to scrape by.

Unfortunately, both the Senate bill and the committee-passed farm bill in the House include cuts to the nutrition assistance. Nonetheless, the Senate bill takes a more sensible approach. Of the $23 billion in deficit reduction included in our bill, $4.5 billion comes from nutrition programs, nearly four times less than the House Agriculture Committee bill. I do not support the cuts in the Senate bill, and I supported an amendment during the Floor debate to restore this funding to SNAP, so that families across the country would not lose an average of $90 per month in benefits. But the cuts in the Senate bill represent a concession from our Chair, and ultimately the Senate farm bill passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote, including mine, as it always has.

This concession is not enough for many House Republicans. The $16 billion reduction in nutrition programs they wish to see in a farm bill would devastate nutrition programs nationwide. Millions in every State in this country would be left without means to purchase food. These drastic reductions would result in the elimination of food assistance for an estimated 2 to 3 million people, and 280,000 children would lose eligibility for free school meals. This is shameful.

The budget choices we make in Congress reflect who we are as Americans. The American people want budget decisions that are fair and sensible. Americans do not want their friends, neighbors, or family members struggling to feed themselves or their children. Proposed cuts to food assistance programs will mean more hungry families in America. I have spent nearly 38 years in the Senate fighting hunger and I will continue to oppose efforts in the farm bill to further roll back hunger assistance programs that help our neediest fellow Americans. In a nation that spends billions on wasted diet fads, I would like to see us spend some money to feed the hungry in the most powerful Nation on Earth.

Madam President, I see my good friend from Oklahoma on the floor, and I know he wishes to speak on behalf of his nominee.

I yield the floor.

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