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Public Statements

Moving Forward Together

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. BURRIS. Madam President, as a freshman Member of this body, I have a great deal of respect for those who have been a part of this institution for many years.

On both sides of the aisle, veteran Senators lend their experience, and their invaluable knowledge of procedure, to the debates that take place in this Chamber every day.

And, as anyone who knows the history of the Senate can tell you, this has always been a friendly place, no matter which party is in control.

This has always been a place where political leaders could disagree without being disagreeable, no matter how vast their differences happen to be. This Senate has always been governed by mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual friendship. Without these key ingredients, it is impossible for us to work together.

Such was the genius of our Founding Fathers, who framed this system of government.

They knew that partisan politics would rage outside these walls, so they created the Senate to be a refuge for those who are prepared to move forward together to solve national problems.

The history of this Chamber is filled with legendary stories of compromise, of relationships across party lines that drove Senators from different backgrounds to find common purpose.

Our dear friend Senator Kennedy, the last lion of this Senate, was one of the greatest at forging bipartisan consensus and fostering mutual respect with the other side.

These stories remind us of the value of civil discourse. They speak to the necessity of working with one another, not against one another, to confront the challenges we face.

But, I am beginning to wonder if these stories are just stories.

Although I have served in this Chamber for only a short time, I recognize that the atmosphere in this body is not what it once was.

I hear the accounts of bipartisan cooperation in the past, but I see fewer and fewer examples of it today.

In fact, just last week, the country watched as two centuries of Senate procedure and privilege were abused for partisan gain.

My colleagues and I were trying to move forward with a bill that extended unemployment benefits, health insurance for the unemployed, lending assistance for small businesses, and other important programs.

No part of this bill was new or controversial. No part of it would significantly change the existing programs that were in place, which were due to expire at the end of the week. We all knew that, if this Senate failed to take action, all of these programs would grind to a halt almost immediately.

Ordinary Americans across the country would stop getting their unemployment checks and their COBRA health benefits. Small businesses would see credit dry up literally overnight. In the middle of the worst economic crisis in decades, this would be a disaster. It would be the last thing that America needed as we tried to help people get back on their feet. But that is exactly what happened when my friend from Kentucky decided to raise objection. In an instant, a single Republican Senator slammed the door on the American people, and left thousands of ordinary folks out in the cold.

He cut off assistance for those who need it most. He denied unemployment insurance to those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

Just when folks were beginning to feel a bit more optimistic, my good friend from Kentucky held up his hand and said, ``Not so fast.''

As a result, on Sunday night, 15,000 Illinoisans lost their unemployment benefits. Another 15,000 will lose their benefits next week, and the week after, until my Republican friend drops his objection and allows us to pass an extension. These are folks who have felt the worst effects of the economic crisis. They are ordinary people, ordinary American families, who cannot afford to miss a check.

But the Senator from Kentucky has objected to continuing these programs. He has prevented the government from putting these checks in the mail. He has frozen the credit that will allow small businesses to create jobs and put more people back to work. He has sent thousands of Federal workers home without pay. He has shut down important highway projects all across America.

I have been in public service for almost 30 years. In all that time, I have never seen anything like this outrageous abuse of senatorial privilege.

We can argue about policy. We can debate legislation. We can discuss procedure and disagree about political tactics. But I believe it is wrong to play politics with people's lives. And I urge my friend from Kentucky to stop.

If my colleagues and I are able to overcome these objections and pass this bill in the next few days, we may be able to restore these benefits retroactively. But the damage has already been done. These programs are not designed to help people who can get by without unemployment insurance for a few days here and there.

These programs are targeted at those who can barely survive paycheck to paycheck. They are for people who need help keeping food on the table, until they have the opportunity to get back on their feet. They are for people who do not have the luxury of waiting just a few more days to pay the bills, as my colleague seems to think.

The Senator from Kentucky has brought our economic recovery to a grinding halt. He is playing politics with hard-working Americans, and he is wasting the time of this distinguished body.

What has happened to the Senate of our forefathers?

What has happened to the atmosphere of friendship that drove past Senators to work together to solve big problems?

My colleagues and I have offered a solution that is acceptable to almost every Member of this Chamber. There are 99 Senators who either support this measure or would like to see an up-or-down vote. But my friend from Kentucky does not mind taking advantage of the rules of this Chamber to make a political point, even if it means adding to the misery of hundreds of thousands across this country, including his home State.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, we have seen this kind of obstruction time and time again from our Republican colleagues, even on issues that are critical to the well-being of more than 30 million Americans.

So maybe it should come as no surprise that a Republican Senator would once again choose to manipulate Senate procedure for partisan gain. In many ways, I suppose that is all we can expect from a party that has refused to offer solutions of their own.

I believe the American people deserve much better than that. I believe regular folks expect us to help make their lives better, not worse. And I believe they are tired of obstructionism. They are tired of hearing that their representatives in Washington can not get things done.

I would urge all of my colleagues to reach for the generous spirit of our forefathers, which defined this Chamber as a friendly and inclusive place for so many decades.

I would urge my colleagues to debate the issues honestly and without resorting to distractions and obstructionism. No legislation will ever be perfect. But I believe it is irresponsible to hold up an important and fundamentally good bill for political reasons.

I ask my friend from Kentucky to drop his objection, as others in this Chamber have asked him many times over the last few days.

Let us move forward together. Let us be constructive. Let us recapture the friendly atmosphere that helped our predecessors rise above partisan politics and achieve great things.

This is not how the Senate was intended to function. So let's prove to the world that this is still the greatest deliberative body on the planet. Let's reject these tactics and move forward together. And let's, without delay, stop the obstruction on this important legislation.

Madam President, I would like to speak on another issue as in morning business.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

Mr. BURRIS. Thank you, Madam President.

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