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Public Statements

Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2005

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Location: Washington, DC


EMERGENCY SUPPLEMENTAL APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2005 -- (Senate - April 13, 2005)

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I am delighted to join my colleague in sponsoring these amendments, which will increase the death gratuity from $12,000 to $100,000 for all service members killed on active duty, and allow their dependents to continue receiving the basic housing allowance for a full year instead of the 180 days in current law.

All of us support our troops. We obviously want to do all we can to see that they have proper equipment, vehicles, and everything else they need to protect their lives as they carry out their missions. But we also need care for the families of these courageous men and women who make the ultimate sacrifice.

Any service member's death is tragic, whether in combat overseas or a training accident here in the United States. They are heroes, not victims. These brave men and women came forward to serve our country knowing what the dangers were and knowing the possibilities. They stood tall when the country needed them.

Their case is a tragedy, and so is the void left behind for their loved ones.

We know what happens when a family is notified of a death. There is a knock on the door. They open the door and a military officer is standing there to give them the most dreaded news they will ever receive. Details are few and typically only include the time and place of the death, and perhaps some brief words on how it happened. A few days later, he provides them a death gratuity check for $12,000 and helps them through the process of making the funeral arrangements while the flag draped coffin is on the way home.

After the burial, the conversation turns to additional funds and benefits. The topic often has to be pressed by the officer, because the families, so burdened, seldom think in terms of what their benefits might be. They slowly realize that instead of having a constant breadwinner for many years, they receive only a modest monthly sum.

The burden of combat deaths falls most often on the junior enlisted personnel, whose average yearly wages can be as low as $17,000. The actual benefit depends on number of children and other specific circumstances, and decreases over time because of age or a child's status as a student.

The current Senate bill uses the administration's formula to achieve a $500,000 threshold, and includes some noncombat deaths, but not all of them. The bill, for example, provides a $100,000 gratuity to survivors of those killed in training accidents. But it retains the current $12,000 gratuity for other types of deaths, such as those who collapse during strenuous exercise or are killed in an accident driving to work. It is distinction without a difference for the family of the service member who died. They know only that their loved one went to work to help prepare their fellow soldiers, marines, sailors or airmen for battle and will never return. In today's military, all jobs and stations are equally important.

Our amendment eliminates any distinction between combat and non-combat deaths and provides a death gratuity of

$100,000, regardless of where or how a service member dies.

Along with other provisions of the bill, the amendment would increase the total death benefit to $500,000, depending on the amount of military life insurance a person carries.

No one can ever put a price on a human life, but there is no doubt that current levels are unacceptably low.

It's also very important to extend the length of time for surviving widows and children to remain in military housing to a full year, either on base or with housing assistance.

Currently, surviving spouses and dependents of military personnel killed on active duty may continue in their military housing or receive their military housing allowances for up to 180 days after the death of their loved one.

Their loss is traumatic enough without the immediate pressure of having to find a place to live, moving, and disrupting their life all over again. Extending the length of time for survivors to stay in military housing gives them greater flexibility as they struggle to deal with what has happened. Children will be able to finish the school year among friends and in familiar surroundings.

We know we can do much more to take care of military families after the loss of a loved one. We have been complacent for too long, and I urge my colleagues to support us in providing this much needed and well-deserved relief to these courageous and suffering families.

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Mr. KENNEDY. I, first, commend Senator Mikulski, and I see the Senator from Maine, Ms. Collins, and others who have been interested in this issue. Am I right that the earlier numbers by and large have been taken up primarily by winter tourism? The time for application comes at the time of the year when great numbers are taken up for the winter tourism, which has happened historically, and what we are trying to do with the Senator's amendment is to treat the summer tourism and the summer needs on an even playing field, as they are in my own State, which are primarily smaller mom-and-pop stores and some very small hotels that need that. So this basically creates a more even playing field, as I understand, between those who would be taken in the wintertime and those who need the help in the summer, No. 1; am I correct?

Ms. MIKULSKI. The Senator from Massachusetts has accurately assessed what has created the crisis: that given the time of application and when they want the people to work, the winter needs then take up practically all 66,000. We acknowledge our colleagues who do need the winter help, but we need their help for the summer help. You are also correct that my legislation would create a more even playing field between the two and, again, this is a temporary legislative remedy while we assess the entire situation of the need for comprehensive reform, how we keep American jobs, how we keep American companies open, and yet retain control of our borders.

Mr. KENNEDY. Am I correct this is a rather modest increase in terms of the demand? In my own State, the numbers are approximately 6,000 for the summertime. The numbers the Senator has are going to be nationwide, so this is very modest based upon the need. The final point which the Senator has emphasized, but I think it is very important to underline, is these are people who have been here before, who have gone home and came back and therefore have demonstrated over the course of their life that they return back home and are in conformity with both the immigration and labor laws that exist today.

Ms. MIKULSKI. The Senator, again, has made an accurate assessment. This bill is only applicable to employers and guest workers who have complied with the law. If a worker has not been here before and they have not demonstrated that they have complied with the law, not returned to their home country, they would not be eligible. That is why I say we need to help American business but keep control of the border.

Mr. KENNEDY. I thank the Senator for her response and urge my colleagues to give strong support for her amendment.

Ms. MIKULSKI. I thank the Senator from Massachusetts.

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, as many are well aware, the cap in current law on the number of H-2B visas is too restrictive, and it's imposing needless hardships on many businesses that rely on seasonal workers to meet the heavy demands of the tourism industry. Once again, these small industries are facing a crisis this summer if the number of visas isn't increased immediately. Senator MIKULSKI's timely amendment will provide the much-needed relief they deserve, and I urge the Senate to support it.

For several years in a row, the cap has created a crisis for the tourism industry in Massachusetts and nationwide. Countless small, family-run businesses depend on the ability to hire more workers for the summer season, and they can't possibly find enough U.S. workers to fill the need. Without this amendment, many of these firms can't survive because the seasonal business is the heart of their operation.

This fiscal year's allocation of 66,000 visas was exhausted just a few months on into the year. Senator MIKULSKI will make about 30,000 additional visas available, and it should be enacted as soon as possible, so that these firms can make their plans for the coming months.

Obviously, this amendment is only temporary relief. It should be achieved through comprehensive immigration reform. We all know our immigration system is broken, and many other reforms are needed as well. The Nation needs a new immigration policy that reflects current economic realities, respects family unity and fundamental fairness, and upholds our enduring tradition as a Nation of immigrants.

Enacting these other reforms will take time--time we don't have if we want to rescue countless seasonal employers around the country. Senator MIKULSKI's proposal provides the immediate relief needed to enable employers counting on H-2B workers to keep their doors open this summer, and I urge my colleagues to support it.

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