FAIR MINIMUM WAGE ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - January 25, 2007)
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I yield myself such time as I might use.
This is the fourth day that the Senate is addressing an issue of enormous importance to those on the lower end of the economic ladder--an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25. It is not a complicated issue. Everybody in this body knows what the issues are. Usually, we have great debates about complicated issues in the United States of America. Soon we will be debating varied policies with regard to Iraq, as we should. But this issue is a simple issue. It is an issue of simple justice. It is as old as many of us in this body. Minimum wage was advanced more than 70 years ago. We have increased it now nine times over recent years, and yet Republicans want to continue to delay, delay, delay, delay, delay, delay, delay; oppose, oppose, oppose.
There was opposition yesterday in insisting that we get cloture in the Senate on an increase in the minimum wage, requiring that we get 60 votes before we can vote up or down on a simple, easy issue and question of fundamental fairness to workers in this country.
We are glad to have debates, but the message ought to go out to the American people exactly what is going on here on day 5 in the Senate on the issue of minimum wage. And we continue to have, as the minority leader said, scores--40, 50, more amendments, 90 amendments--on the issue of the increase in the minimum wage--90 amendments. Make no mistake about it, America, who is holding up the increase in the minimum wage.
Eight times the Senate has increased its own salary, increased the salary of the good Senator from South Carolina $32,000 in the last 10 years--$32,000.
And if we have had 1 hour of debate on that issue--1 hour of debate on that issue, 1 hour of debate on that issue--I would be surprised. This is the fifth day our Republican friends who, as Members on the Democratic side, have enjoyed a $32,000 increase in their pay have 90 amendments to try and scuttle an increase in the minimum wage for low-income workers--trying to scuttle, to sink the increase.
These workers understand it. Workers across this country understand it. Working families understand it. Middle-income people understand it. All Americans understand it. This is one of those basic and fundamental issues people understand because it is an issue of fairness.
I don't impugn the motives of my friend from South Carolina, but he has opposed the minimum wage on every single occasion he has addressed it--every single occasion. We have the record here as to how the good Senator has voted every time on the issue of an increase in the minimum wage: going back to the House of Representatives in 2002, 2005, and over here on seven different occasions he has voted against the increase in the minimum wage. So the idea that he wants to provide $2.10 more to every worker in States that have raised--under the age-old law of the minimum wage--their minimum wage because of the failure of the Senate to do it has a sort of hollow ring to it. It has sort of a hollow ring to it since he has opposed an increase in the minimum wage on each and every occasion we have considered it. We have to take a look at exactly what is being done.
I assure my friend from South Carolina that the workers in my State understand the battle they have had to increase the minimum wage. And I daresay, in the various States across the country that have increased their minimum wage, they have understood that, too. The legislators have gone out and worked, and workers understand what they have done. They have understood what they have done. They have understood that the minimum wage is a basic standard which is supposed to be the lowest living wage. It is supposed to be the lowest living wage. Historically, it is supposed to be half of what the average wage is in the country. That goes back to the time beginning of the minimum wage and the record shows that all the way up to probably the 1980s, and then it has dropped precipitously, half of what it was.
Going back to the 1930s, the minimum wage was designed to be a floor. If States want to add something to it, they can, but it ought to be a floor for all workers in this country. One of the principal reasons it was passed at that time is because the Members of this body, the House of Representatives, and the President of the United States saw what was happening in different parts of the country where States were lowering their wages to try and attract industries and companies in a rush to the bottom, with the exploitation of worker after worker, family after family, in a rush to the bottom. So the national decision was taken, in terms of fairness and as a moral issue, that workers who were going to work hard were going to receive a minimum wage.
One of the age-old values in our country, in society, is that work ought to pay. We hear that stated around here with great ease and frequency, and that is what we are trying to do with a minimum wage increase. We are trying to make work pay, pay people who are doing some of the most difficult work in America, and demonstrate a respect for that work, give them pay because they are doing hard, difficult work, but we respect our fellow Americans and respect their efforts.
This is not the law of the jungle. The economy of the United States of America isn't survival of the fittest. Some would like to have it that way. Some who oppose the minimum wage would like to have it that way, but it isn't that way, thank God, in the United States of America. It is in the jungle, but not with regard to a democracy and a free economy.
Let me state specifically what this proposal does. The good Senator yesterday voted to permit any State to effectively opt out of any kind of minimum wage. So that would have fundamentally destroyed any kind of uniformity across the country.
His proposal is, in the wake of the Senate and Congress over 10 years under Republican leadership refusing to increase the minimum wage, the States in their own good judgments have done so, and now he says let's add on $2.10 to do that. It does seem to me appealing in a certain respect, because I believe the minimum wage is not a livable wage in many parts of the country. We have seen these livable wage campaigns that are taking place in Baltimore, Los Angeles--many cities around the country--my own city of Boston, and they have raised it in a particular region, and it has had great success.
But that isn't the issue. This particular amendment of the Senator would basically do what was attempted yesterday, but do it in a different way. Yesterday was to effectively end the minimum wage by letting any State opt out. Today the swing of the pendulum has gone the other way. The amendment says we are going to add additional funds on to any State. Every State over these past years has noted the failure of the Senate as a result of Republican leadership because we have had a majority read back the records of the votes in the Senate. We had a majority in the Senate with good Republican support to raise the minimum wage, but we couldn't get to the 60 votes, and our Republican leadership wouldn't let us. So the States moved ahead. Now that the States have moved ahead, the Senator wants to say: Oh, you have moved ahead because you made a judgment about the respect for your own workers, and we are going to add on to it to try to disrupt the minimum wage.
I hope this amendment will not be accepted, and I hope we will be able to move along and make further progress on this issue.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, I thank the good Senator for his concern about the workers in Massachusetts. In Boston we have a living wage of $11.95. We made that judgment in Boston, and it is working very well.
I take note, in this American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association publication, that South Carolina ranks 18th in terms of the cost of living. There are 17 other States that have a lower cost of living. But South Carolina is 18th in this list. It is not at the lowest; it is 18th.
The fact is, it is not greatly out of sync. It is close to the average across the country. But let's get back to the effect of the Senator's amendment.
In Arizona, in this last election, there were 756,144 people who voted for an increase in the minimum wage to $6.75. That vote would be overturned, effectively, by the Senator from South Carolina. In Colorado, 725,700 turned out for a $6.85 minimum wage. The citizens of Colorado--their votes would be overturned. In Missouri, 1,583,340 million voted for $6.50. That vote would be overturned.
Montana, $6.15, 283,258 turned out. Nevada, 394,058 turned out, $6.15 an hour. Ohio, $6.85, 2,080,648 turned out. Those are 5,823,148 in six different States. That is in regard to the initial referendum. All of that would be overturned by the Senator from South Carolina.
So I come back to the basic concept, and that is that we have established some minimum standards. There are a lot of objections to those minimum health standards, so workers are not going to be--since we passed OSHA in 1970, we have cut in half the number of workers who have been killed in the workplace. We have cut that in half. About 60 percent less workers have been killed. There are other kinds of illnesses that have come up with changes in our economy, but a decision in judgment was made that we are not going to have the exploitation of workers. We are going to have safe workplaces. We don't permit the exploitation of children in our factories. We think they ought to be in schools. Some economists think: Oh, let's have children in there. Let's work those children and see what the market does. Let's let those workers go in and work in those dangerous places. If the market, if it is going to be that disruptive in terms of the employer, let's go ahead and do that.
Well, we had decided at another time that we were not going to permit the exploitation of children or women in the workplace, and we were also going to insist on health and safety regulations and we were going to establish a basic floor, a basic floor, a minimum. It is not high enough even at $7.25, I don't believe myself, but that is the judgment that has been basically made by the Congress, by our side, the Democrats, and by a handful of Republicans, and we wish to see that raised. We wish to see that raised.
I suppose you could take the good Senator's argument and logic and say: Well, we have increased our salaries $32,000, and they have a different cost of living, so maybe South Carolina ought to get less, if we want to follow that logic. We say: No, we are one country with one history and one destiny, and we are going--obviously, Members of Congress and Members of the Senate are going to be treated as they should be, and that is fairly, for the work they do.
We say workers ought to be treated fairly for the work they do. Minimum standard. This amendment does injustice to that.
I would mention there is obviously a disparity in the cost of living. I have mentioned what the Energy Information Administration says a worker across the country pays, on average, for gasoline, and that is $2.17 a gallon. In South Carolina, it is $2.13 a gallon. It is 3 cents more in my State of Massachusetts. I was going to get the basic indicators. Health care, the average cost for a family is going to be $11,000. Try and do that on $5.15 an hour--$11,000. It is probably a little more, closer to $12,000 in Massachusetts--but $11,000 for a family of four. Try and do that on $5.15. We have the housing charts up here. I would think that even $5.15 or $7.25 an hour for people who work hard in South Carolina, they are going to have a tight belt strap in providing for their children, providing for their food, and providing for their general well-being.
But this does a major alteration and change to a very fundamental concept to what the minimum wage is all about, and I hope the Senator's amendment will not be successful and that our colleagues will vote no.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, I think we had notified Members we would try and vote at half past, and I will certainly follow that guidance. I would say, as we wind up this debate on this particular amendment, the underlying legislation provides for an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25. It is well understood by all of the Members. We are taking a good deal of time for those who differ with that as a concept. We have had those who have opposed it, who tried to circumvent it, to come up with ways to avoid it, and we are glad to deal with those issues. But nonetheless, this is an amendment now by my friend from South Carolina that would effectively undermine a very important concept that has been the basis of the minimum wage for over 70 years and that is to establish a basic floor across this country, a basic floor for minimum wage, permitting States to raise--if they want to increase their wages, they can do that. If cities want to increase their wages, they can do that, such as my city of Boston, such as the District of Columbia, such as Baltimore, and such as other cities have done, and they have had very remarkable success in terms of the reduction of absenteeism, the continuation of workers remaining in employment, increasing productivity, and the rest. But that is a different issue for a different time.
The Senator from South Carolina's amendment, in effect, says we will take this $2.10, which will be the value of the increase in the minimum wage, and add that to every State across the country. That is an entirely different concept. I, myself, find that certain parts of this are attractive to think that we do need to raise the minimum wage beyond the $7.25, but that is not the debate today. That is not the debate. That is not the issue. The basic issue is whether we are going to violate the very fundamental understanding we have, with regard to this issue at this time in this body now, and that is that we are going to pass a floor in this country applicable to all the States and raise it from $5.15 an hour to $7.25. That is the issue. The amendment of the Senator from South Carolina, however well-intentioned, does serious injury, disruption, and violence to that very basic and fundamental concept. I hope it will not be accepted in the Senate.
We are approaching the time of 10:30, and we are very hopeful we will have a vote in relation to the amendment of the Senator from South Carolina in the next couple of moments.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, this amendment does nothing to help working families, especially those earning the minimum wage. It is a travesty that we are debating more tax breaks for the wealthy who use health savings accounts as another way to shelter their income when we should be talking about a long overdue pay increase for working families.
The real-world impact of this amendment is one more tax break that makes health savings accounts, already the most tax-preferred accounts in history, even more alluring to those who are healthy and wealthy. It seems my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have yet to run out of more sweeteners for wealthy health savings account holders.
We shouldn't spend another dime on health savings accounts. At the same time, there is no money--no money--for health care for children of those who are poor or frail, there is no limit to the money they want to spend for new tax breaks for the wealthy.
Health savings accounts don't work for working families. A minimum wage worker who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks of the year, makes $10,712. The deductible for a high-deductible family plan can be as much as $11,000--more than the worker makes in a year. And that is just the deductible, that doesn't even include the premiums.
These accounts are no solution for working families who are uninsured or underinsured. A recent survey by the Commonwealth Fund found that compared with those with traditional comprehensive insurance, families using high-deductible health plans with health savings accounts were less than half as likely to have been uninsured before being covered by their current plan. Instead, those opening health savings accounts are more likely to be healthy and wealthy and switching to a health savings account to take advantage of tax breaks. Do we understand? Do we understand the growth in the health savings are for people who are already insured? This doesn't do anything for workers, let alone minimum wage workers. Why does the increase in the minimum wage have to be--have to carry the burden of providing a tax break for the wealthiest individuals in this country? Why don't we put this on some other program? Why is it the hardest working Americans at the lowest end of the economic ladder have to be out there and to have a sweetener for the wealthiest individuals? Why is it, Mr. President? That is what this amendment is all about.
The GAO found the average income of those using health savings accounts was $133,000--three times that of all tax filers. That is the average income of use. We are trying to get an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25, and our friends on the other side want to have a tax break for those whose average income is $133,000. We know our Republican friends are opposed to an increase in the minimum wage. Isn't a vote against it enough? Do you have such disdain for hard-working Americans who are earning the minimum wage that you have to file these kinds of amendments? Put it on your tax extenders. That is what the health savings accounts were on before. Put it on that. Why take it out on hard-working Americans who are at the lower end of the economic ladder?
These plans don't work for working families because the high out-of-pocket costs associated with the high-deductible plan leaves these families at great financial risk. It's no wonder that over half of all bankruptcies in America are caused by patients unable to pay their medical bills.
Of those who go bankrupt due to medical expenses, 75 percent had health insurance but found it didn't cover the care they needed when they got sick. Health savings accounts contribute to this, with those who are in high-deductible health plans with the accounts twice as likely to spend 5 percent or more of their income on medical costs and twice as likely to delay or avoid needed health care as those with traditional health plans.
The large majority of low- and moderate-income working families who are given no choice but a high-deductible plan can't afford to fund a health savings account. And many employers don't contribute to their employee's accounts, and if they do, the contributions are well below the funds needed to meet the high deductible.
While more than half of those with incomes above $50,000 contribute $1,000 or more annually to their accounts, more than two-thirds of those with lower incomes contribute less than $1,000, and more than one-quarter are unable to contribute any money to their account.
Even if they manage to come up with money to put into their account, those with lower incomes are disadvantaged because of the regressiveness of the tax code. A family of four earning $20,000 who manages to scrape together $1,000 gets no tax advantage for their contribution, while a family earning $120,000 gets a $3l0 tax reduction.
The inequity only increases with higher contributions. In the unlikely event that a family earning $20,000 was able to contribute $5,450, last year's maximum contribution, would still get no tax advantage for their contribution, while a family earning $120,000 would receive a tax break of $1,667.
It's no surprise that a study late last year by the Government Accountability Office found that health savings accounts were being disproportionately used by those with high incomes. The GAO found that the average income of those using health savings accounts was $133,000, almost three times that of all tax filers. And account holders in a health savings account focus group acknowledged that many were using their health savings accounts to shelter income.
Finally, the GAO noted that:
when individuals are given a choice between HSA-eligible and traditional plans ..... HSA-eligible plans may attract healthier individuals who use less health care or, as we found, higher-income individuals with the means to pay higher deductibles and the desire to accrue tax-free savings.
The adverse selection that would result will raise premiums for working families in traditional plans, increasing the likelihood they will join the ranks of the uninsured.
I urge my colleagues to vote against this amendment. Promoting health savings accounts is bad health policy, it is bad tax policy, and it does nothing to help low- and moderate-income working families.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I join my friend from West Virginia in commending Mr. Brown, the Senator from Ohio, for his speech today.
When I first arrived here--the Senator from West Virginia probably remembers--freshman Senators were rarely expected to speak. If you spoke within the first 2 years, people thought you were coming along a little more rapidly than others might expect. That tradition has long passed. We can understand why.
Today in the Senate, working families and the middle class have a new champion. His name is Sherrod Brown, and he comes from Ohio. He has spoken eloquently and movingly and compellingly about the challenges facing citizens in the small towns and big cities of his State. He could be speaking for the middle class and working families in New Bedford, Fall River, Lowell, Lawrence, Springfield or Worcester or other places around the State of Massachusetts.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, while I appreciate my colleague from Oregon and his commitment to education, this is not an omnibus tax bill; it is long overdue legislation to increase the minimum wage. It is not an opportunity for Members to present their tax cut wish list. It is Congress's opportunity to finally right the wrong of denying millions of hard working minimum wage workers a raise for 10 years.
Unfortunately, our Republican colleagues filed more than 25 amendments proposing new or expanded tax cuts. Many of them would cost billions of dollars. None of them are paid for.
This amendment would extend several tax benefits for education that I strongly support, but it should be paid for. It would cost $35 billion over the next decade. That cost should be offset by the elimination of unjustified corporate tax loopholes that are currently draining the Treasury.
I also can not support his amendment because it seeks to make permanent tax benefits that I believe represent misplaced priorities. The amendment would extend the Coverdell education savings account provision, which provides benefits to families with children in private elementary and secondary schools, while doing nothing to improve our Nation's public school system.
And this amendment does nothing for working families who do not have enough assets and savings to participate in the Coverdell scheme.
As the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service notes:
the main outcome of extending the [Coverdell accounts] to pay for K-12 education expenses may be to slightly subsidize higher income families who might have sent their children to private school anyway.
While Coverdell accounts might help richer families send their children to private school, it does nothing to address what parents are calling for to improve public schools.
The Coverdell bill does not: put qualified teachers in the classroom; reduce class sizes; modernize or repair school buildings; provide additional afterschool opportunities; or hold schools accountable for improved student achievement.
At a time when we are asking our schools to do more under the No Child Left Behind, while failing to live up to our funding commitments, we should not divert billions of tax dollars to support private schools. This year over half of the school districts in America will see their title I funding cut. Funding for the No Child Left Behind Act has fallen over $55 billion short of the amount promised 5 years ago.
We are over $8 billion under the amount promised to ensure equal education opportunities to disabled students just 2 years ago when we reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Reversing these shortfalls should be our priority in this Congress, not making permanent a tax benefit that promotes private schools over public schools.
I do strongly support the extension of the deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses for higher education, which is set to expire at the end of 2007. This deduction allows middle-income Americans to take a deduction for higher education expenses of up to $4,000. The IRS estimates that nearly 4.7 million students and families in the U.S. took advantage of the deduction in 2004.
I look forward to working on this proposal as we move forward with the debate on college affordability and higher education in the coming weeks.
We must prioritize making college more affordable.
The cost of college has more than tripled in the last 20 years. Each year, 400,000 students who are qualified to attend a 4-year college find themselves shut out because of cost factors.
As a result, students and families are pinching pennies more than ever to pay for higher education and more students and families are taking out loans to finance higher education.
We must provide them relief with a comprehensive strategy that starts with a substantial increase in the Pell grant. As the cost of even public college tuition and fees has climbed by an unacceptable 46 percent since 2001, the maximum Pell grant has not increased even a penny. This Congress should quickly act to remedy this.
We also should reform the student loan programs and use the savings to increase student aid. Senator Smith has joined me in introducing the STAR Act, which provides incentives for schools to participate in the cheaper federal student loan program and uses savings to increase need-based aid generating over $13 billion over 10 years in need-based aid at no additional cost.
Finally, Congress should make college loan payments more affordable by reducing interest rates and capping monthly loan payments.
I plan to address these issues in our committee very soon and I would welcome Senator Smith's contributions to that legislation and that debate.
I also look forward to working with him, Senator Baucus and other members of the Finance Committee as they develop a responsible tax package that helps middle class and low-income families afford to send their children to college.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, it is now 10 after 5 on the fifth day that the Senate has been considering raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over a 2-year period. We have not, as we have heard in the course of this debate, raised it in the last 10 years. This is just going to restore the purchasing power of those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder to what it was 10 years ago. It won't even give them an increase, simply restore the purchasing power.
Five days we have been debating a rather simple concept that everyone in this institution knows and has voted on a number of times--whether it is over here in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. For 10 years, Republican leadership has refused to let us get a vote on increasing the minimum wage. Let's have no mistake about it--10 years, the Republican leadership has basically refused to let us get it, even though a majority of the Members in this body, a handful of those Republican Members, have favored an increase in the minimum wage. But we have been unable to get to the numbers sufficient to break the effective filibuster and deny us the opportunity to vote.
These individuals, individuals who have been receiving the minimum wage, and their families and their allies and their supporters and the workers of this country, the trade union movement, the AFL/CIO, the church groups, those who represent the great faiths of this country and others, particularly Democrats and some conscientious Republicans, have said this is wrong and we will try to do something about it. They have, over the period of time, raised the initiatives in some States. In six different States where this issue was on the ballot, they indicated they wanted the increase in the minimum wage. States have raised the minimum wage. But we have still not had this institution, the Senate, go on record and say to working families in this country that they ought to get a raise.
Mr. President, $276 billion in tax breaks for corporations, $36 billion in tax breaks for small businesses, increase in productivity of 29 percent over the last 10 years, but do you think there is any increase in the minimum wage? No. Five days on the floor of the Senate we have considered immigration issues, as we have now. We have considered Social Security issues. We have considered health issues. We are considering education issues. We are considering additional kinds of tax breaks for wealthy corporations. But do we hear from the other side a willingness, as this side is willing at this moment, at 12 after 5 today, on Thursday? I speak for all of our Democratic Members and say we are prepared to vote now, now, in 10 minutes, 15 minutes on this issue.
But no, as we have been for the last five days--no, no, we have other amendments, Senator. We have other amendments to offer.
We have now had amendments that have been worth over $200 billion. We have had amendments on education of $35 billion. We have had health savings amendments that will benefit those of average income of $133,000 costing $8 billion. We have had those kinds of amendments and we are looking at the Kyl amendment at $3 billion, but we still cannot get $2.10 over 2 years.
What is the price, we ask the other side? What is the price you want from these working men and women? What cost? How much more do we have to give to the private sector and to business? How many billion dollars more are you asking, are you requiring? When does the greed stop, we ask the other side.
That is the question and that is the issue, make no mistake about it. They have on the Republican side 70 more amendments--70 more amendments. We have none. We are prepared to vote now. Seventy more amendments. Oh, yes. We want an increase in the minimum wage, we want this, we want that, but silence over there, or let's have some other kinds of amendments that have virtually nothing to do with this. Do you have such disdain for hard-working Americans that you want to pile all your amendments on this? Why don't you just hold your amendments for other pieces of legislation? Why this volume of amendments on just the issue to try to raise the minimum wage? What is it about it that drives you Republicans crazy? What is it? Something. Something. Are you going to require us to have a cloture vote next week? I can see it already: Amendments that have already been filed that are going to be related in case we do get cloture to delay this even further.
What is the price workers have to pay to get an increase? What is it about working men and women that you find so offensive that you won't permit even a vote, denying the Senate of the United States the opportunity to express ourselves? We don't want to hear any more from that side for the rest of this session about permitting or not permitting votes in here when you are denying on the most simple concept: an increase in the minimum wage. We don't want to hear any more about that. This is filibuster by delay and amendments. I have been around here long enough to know it when I see it and smell it. That is what it looks like, that is what it is, make no mistake about it. Make no mistake about it. And it just puzzles me. It really does.
I don't know why it is so offensive to the other side. It certainly isn't the economic issues. We haven't heard those debated. We brought up the various charts about what has happened in States which have raised the minimum wage and how they have done better economically than States that have not raised it. We have shown where small businesses have done better in States where they have raised the minimum wage. We have also shown what has happened when we have an increase in the minimum wage.
We show the increased poverty. There is a long story in the New York Times today:
Childhood Poverty Is Found To Portend High Adult Costs. Children who grow up poor cost the economy $500 billion a year because they are less productive, earn less money, commit more crimes, have more health-related expenses, according to a study released on Wednesday.
The study goes on. Here it is in the newspaper today, just what we have been talking about--the United States with the highest poverty rate for children of any industrial nation in the world.
What has happened? The British raise their minimum wage, and they get two million children out of poverty. The Irish go to $10.80 an hour and reduce the poverty for children by 40 percent. You raise the minimum wage, and you get children out of poverty. Oh, no, no. ``Child Poverty Is Found To Portend High Adult Costs.' What more information do we have to provide to the other side? What more do we have to do? What more do we have to do?
Well, hopefully the American people are going to understand about who is delaying, who is opposing, who is using every kind of parliamentary tactic known to every possible Parliamentarian to delay action on the increase in the minimum wage. It lies right at the feet of the Republican leadership--right at the feet of the Republican leadership. Make no mistake about it. Make no mistake about it. An amendment here, an amendment there, an amendment on Social Security, an amendment on immigration, and the chortling and the laughing as they go on about their business. Well, for those millions of Americans who are headed home tonight, after having worked long and hard, to face their children and hoping that at least, after the House of Representatives voted, with 80 Republicans who voted for an increase in the minimum wage, certainly the Senate of the United States isn't going to fail us, what do we tell them after 5 days? And $200 billion dollars more in tax cuts here, $35 billion more in tax cuts there, $8 billion more in tax cuts for HSAs. How many more billions of dollars do we have to give you, Mr. Republican? How many more dollars do we have to give you to get an increase in the minimum wage? It is shocking. It is disgraceful. But hopefully working families across this country are going to see it for what it is.
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Mr. KENNEDY. I would ask that the Chair tell me when I have 3 minutes.
I want to take the time--since I have been listening patiently here, our colleagues are going to listen to me read a rather dramatic article in the New York Times today, page A-10:
In the battle for Baghdad, Haifa Street has changed hands so often that it has taken on the feel of a no man's land, the deadly space between opposing trenches. On Wednesday, as American and Iraqi troops poured in, the street showed why it is such a sensitive gauge of an urban conflict marked by front lines that melt into confusion, enemies with no clear identity and allies who disappear or do not show up at all.
In a miniature version of the troop increase that the United States hopes will secure the city, American soldiers and armored vehicles raced onto Haifa Street before dawn to dislodge Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias who have been battling for a stretch of ragged slums and mostly abandoned high rises. But as the sun rose, many of the Iraqi Army units who were supposed to do the actual searches of the buildings did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own.
When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one American soldier, with a shot to the head.
Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shiite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the Gotham-like cityscape, no one could say.
``Who the hell is shooting at us?' shouted Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski, whose platoon was jammed into a small room off an
alley that was being swept by a sniper's bullets. ``Who's shooting at us? Do we know who they are?'
Just before the platoon tossed smoke bombs and sprinted through the alley to a more secure position, Sergeant Biletski had a moment to reflect on this spot, which the United States has now fought to regain from a mysterious enemy at least three times in the past two years.
``This place is a failure,' Sergeant Biletski said. ``Every time we come here, we have to come back.'
He paused, then said, ``Well, maybe not a total failure,' since American troops have smashed opposition on Haifa Street each time they have come in.
With that, Sergeant Biletski ran through the billowing yellow smoke and took up a new position.
The Haifa Street operation, involving Bradley Fighting Vehicles as well as the highly mobile Stryker vehicles, is likely to cause plenty of reflection by the commanders in charge of the Baghdad buildup of more than 20,000 troops. Just how those extra troops will be used is not yet known, but it is likely to mirror at least broadly the Haifa Street strategy of working with Iraqi forces to take on unruly groups from both sides of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide.
The commander of the operation, Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley of the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division, said his forces were not interested in whether opposition came from bullets fired by Sunnis or by Shiites. He conceded that the cost of letting the Iraqi forces learn on the job was to add to the risk involved in the operation.
``This was an Iraqi-led effort and with that come challenges and risks,' Colonel Smiley said. ``It can be organized chaos.'
The American units in the operation began moving up Haifa Street from the south by 2 a.m. on Wednesday. A platoon of B Company in the Stryker Brigade secured the roof of a high rise, where an Eminen poster was stuck on the wall of what appeared to be an Iraqi teenager's room on the top floor. But in a pattern that would be repeated again and again in a series of buildings, there was no one in the apartment.
Many of the Iraqi units that showed up late never seemed to take the task seriously, searching haphazardly, breaking dishes and rifling through personal CD collections in the apartments. Eventually the Americans realized that the Iraqis were searching no more than half of the apartments; at one point the Iraqis completely disappeared, leaving the American unit working with them flabbergasted.
``Where did they go?' yelled Sgt. Jeri A. Gillett. Another soldier suggested, ``I say we just let them go and we do this ourselves.'
Then the gunfire began. It would come from high rises across the street, from behind trash piles and sandbags in alleys and from so many other directions that the soldiers began to worry that the Iraqi soldiers were firing at them. Mortars started dropping from across the Tigris River, to the east, in the direction of a Shiite slum.
The only thing that was clear was that no one knew who the enemy was. ``The thing is, we wear uniforms--they don't,' said Specialist Terry Wilson.
At one point the Americans were forced to jog alongside the Strykers on Haifa Street, sheltering themselves as best they could from the gunfire. The Americans finally found the Iraqis and ended up accompanying them into an extremely dangerous and exposed warren of low-slung hovels behind the high rises as gunfire rained down.
American officers tried to persuade the Iraqi soldiers to leave the slum area for better cover, but the Iraqis refused to risk crossing a lane that was being raked by machine-gun fire. ``It's their show,' said Lt. David Stroud, adding that the Americans have orders to defer to the Iraqis in cases like this.
In this surreal setting, about 20 American soldiers were forced at one point to pull themselves one by one up a canted tin roof by a dangling rubber hose and then shimmy along a ledge to another hut. The soldiers were stunned when a small child suddenly walked out of a darkened doorway and an old man started wheezing and crying somewhere inside.
Ultimately the group made it back to the high rises and escaped the sniper in the alley by throwing out the smoke bombs and sprinting to safety. Even though two Iraqis were struck by gunfire, many of the rest could not stop shouting and guffawing with amusement as they ran through the smoke.
One Iraqi soldier in the alley pointed his rifle at an American reporter and pulled the trigger. There was only a click: the weapon had no ammunition. The soldier laughed at his joke.
Mr. President, how much time do I have remaining?
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Massachusetts has 5 minutes 50 seconds remaining.
Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, this report in the New York Times is the reason our people are becoming angrier by the day as the war rages on. They expect Congress to be an effective restraint on the President and his misuse of the war power. Opposition to the escalation of the Iraq war is becoming louder. How much clearer does the opposition have to be before the President finally listens and responds to the voices of the American people, the generals, and a bipartisan majority of Congress?
General Abizaid doesn't support this escalation. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee:
More American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.
GEN James Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, doesn't support it. He said:
We do not believe just adding numbers for the sake of adding numbers--just thickening the mix--is necessarily the way to go.
Secretary Powell said that he is not ``persuaded that another surge of troops in Baghdad for the purpose of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work.'
GEN Barry McCaffrey, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, thinks it won't work. He said:
Putting another 20,000 to 30,000 troops, particularly in urban combat in a city of 7 million Arabs of Baghdad, is a fool's errand. It is sticking your finger in the water. When you pull your finger out, its presence will not have made a difference.
General Hoar, former head of CENTCOM, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week:
The addition of 21,000 troops is too little and too late. This is still not enough to quell the violence, and without major changes in the command and control of forces within Baghdad, the current set-up for shared control is unsatisfactory.
Passage of the bipartisan resolution approved yesterday by the Foreign Relations Committee is an important statement about the need for a different course in Iraq, and I will support it. But we cannot stop there, especially if the President continues to unilaterally impose his failing policy on an America that has already rejected it. Congress has a constitutional duty to stop the President from sending more of our sons and daughters into this civil war. That is why I have introduced legislation that would require the President to get the authority he needs from Congress before moving forward with a further escalation in Iraq, and I intend to seek a vote on it.
This is a debate about what is best for our troops and our national security. Our forces have served with great valor. They have done everything they have been asked to do. They have served in Iraq for longer than 4 years, longer than World War II. They have done everything they have been asked to do. They have won every battle they have been in, and they have served with great courage and great valor. We owe them. We owe their bravery, their courage, their dedication, and their commitment to the United States of America a better and fairer policy that will bring them safely home.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator has 3 minutes remaining.
Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, on the matter directly before the Senate, the Sessions amendment, the amendment bars employers from receiving Government contracts if they have violated the immigration laws that prohibit the hiring of illegal workers. There is no judicial review, but the Attorney General can waive the prohibition or limit the scope if it is necessary to the national defense or in the interests of national security. An exemption from the penalty is provided to employers participating in the basic pilot program, the current employer verification system.
This amendment bars employers from receiving Government contracts if they violate the immigration laws that prohibit the hiring of illegal workers. I am surprised that is not already the law. We certainly should bar them from receiving lucrative Government contracts and, therefore, I will support this amendment.
I do have concerns, however, about continuing to pass piecemeal enforcement-only measures without enacting a comprehensive reform program, and I would express reservations about others.
We will have the opportunity in the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which I happen to be the chairman of the immigration subcommittee at this time, to consider the immigration bill. We welcome the full opportunity to debate and discuss those issues in the subcommittee, the full committee, and in the Senate. I will support this amendment and withhold the remainder of my time.
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, this is not an omnibus tax bill, it is long overdue legislation to increase the minimum wage. It is not an opportunity for Members to present their tax cut wish list. It is Congress' opportunity to finally right the wrong of denying millions of hard working minimum wage workers a raise for 10 years.
Since the minimum wage was last increased 10 years ago, Congress has passed $276 billion dollars in corporate tax breaks. In addition, Congress has cut taxes for individuals by more than a trillion dollars, with most of the benefits going to the wealthiest taxpayers.
Unfortunately, for some of our Republican colleagues, there never are enough tax breaks for the wealthy. They have filed more than twenty five amendments proposing new or expanded tax cuts. Many of them would cost billions of dollars.
The Republicans are attempting to hold the minimum wage increase hostage to their insatiable desire for more and larger tax cuts. It is a shameless strategy.
The Kyl amendment seeks to extend the period of time when businesses can receive accelerated depreciation for leasehold restaurant and retail space improvements. The original amendment contained no offset. It would have cost $3 billion dollars.
After being told by Democratic leaders that we would oppose any tax breaks that weren't paid for, Senator Kyl changed his amendment to include an offset.
The problem is that the tax benefit he proposes to eliminate is much more worthy than the tax break he is seeking to create. He is proposing to eliminate a long-standing tax provision that allows employees of educational institutions to receive free tuition for their children. He wants to tax that free tuition. This would be a huge tax increase for hundreds of thousands of families with very modest incomes. They are teachers, food service workers, and maintenance personnel at colleges and schools across America. Many of them have worked for years in jobs with lower wages than they could have earned elsewhere in order to receive these educational opportunities for their children. Right now more than 150,000 students are attending college because of these benefits.
More than one-fifth of all graduate students in our country receive employer benefits from the schools they attend, including tuition reduction. Senator Kyl's amendment would make it more difficult for these students to remain in school as well.
To change existing law and suddenly make that free tuition taxable will mean that many of these people can not afford to take advantage of the free tuition. That would be grossly unfair. It would be eliminating a very legitimate pro-education tax benefit to fund yet another business tax break for the same wealthy interests that have already received so much.
At a time when our Nation's competitiveness and the global economy depends on our ability to continue producing high skilled workers, making it more difficult for students to obtain an education just doesn't make sense.
Senator Kyl's amendment would have an ironic result. It would mean that thousands of men and women, who toil at the most difficult jobs at our nation's colleges, will have no hope of seeing their children walk through those college gates themselves.
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