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Middle Class Tax Cut Act--Motion to Proceed--Continued

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. COONS. Mr. President, I rise to speak to the issue on the floor before the Senate, the vote we will take later today on two competing plans for our path forward. As the Presiding Officer and I and all of the Members of this Chamber know, our national debt and our deficit are enormous. They are unsustainable. Last week an array of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle came to the Senate floor one after the other to make exactly that point.

Members of both parties agree excessive debt hurts our competitiveness, that it causes interest rates to rise, and it crowds out critical investments in our country's future. My own experience in the private sector and 6 years of tough budget balancing as a county executive in my home State of Delaware taught me how important it is to have responsible budget processes in place to manage our way through difficult financial times, to create opportunity for our communities while still reducing our deficits and debt.

There is no question that high debt levels lead to lower growth in the long run, and it can restrain or starve or strangle the dreams of our communities, our children, for our future. Our deficit and debt is a ticking time bomb, and everyone--Republicans and Democrats, Independents, economists, experts, working families, small business owners, the American people--knows that we want to and have to deal with it. But the key, in my view, is to deal with this problem responsibly and fairly and in a way that reflects America's best.

Our debt is neither a Republican nor a Democratic problem but a shared and structural problem. It took both parties to get us into this mess, and it will take both parties working together to dig us out. Each Member of this body must take responsibility and look at what is best for the next generation not just for winning the next election.

For my part, I am going to continue to fight for balanced and responsible deficit reduction. If the American people can share in the sacrifice in our cities and counties and States all over this country, as they are already doing in my home State of Delaware, then Republicans and Democrats have to show that we too can come together and find a way to compromise.

It is time we recognize a sobering realty: If we are going to plug the hole in national balance sheets, if we are going to avoid the fate of Europe--and it is a big hole in the bottom of America's balance sheet--while still continuing to invest in our future and in the strength and promise and opportunity of our communities, we have to find a more responsible, more fair balance between spending cuts and revenue increases.

We simply cannot achieve the level of savings we need through spending cuts alone. Drastic cuts, dramatic cuts, across-the-board cuts violate our very values and will drive down the possibility of recovery and growth in the future. Spending cuts must be a central part of the solution to our budget problem. But the fact is revenue must also play a meaningful role. We need balance. That is the only way to provide the economic certainty necessary to sustain a recovery and, in my view, the only way to sustain investments that are critical for our future.

Let's be clear about some rhetoric we have heard both out in the country and in this Chamber. The United States does not begrudge success. We, as Democrats, in this Chamber do not resent those who have achieved, who have succeeded. In fact, that is the engine that for generations has drawn people from around the world to this country and has pulled people forward: the hopes and dreams of those who see reason to the work in this country because of the promise of opportunity, the very real history of entrepreneurship, of risk taking, and the very great rewards this country provides those who succeed beyond their wildest dreams through hard work, through innovation, through creativity.

No, we do not resent or reject wealth and success in this Chamber or in this country. In fact, we admire it and want to create the groundwork for a whole new generation of Americans to achieve the successes of the last generation. If we are going to do right by the next generation of Bill Gateses or Warren Buffetts, that requires us to find solutions that make our tax system fairer and to prevent burdening the next generation of Americans with a crushing national debt.

President Lyndon Johnson once said:

It is not just enough to open the gates of opportunity, all of our citizens have to have the ability to walk through those gates.

The ability of future Americans to walk through those gates, I believe, requires sustainable investments in our future, in our schools and teachers so our children can compete in the global economy and we can keep improving public education and infrastructure; so our businesses can move their products and ideas as fast as our competitors can on our roads and rails and broadband, in research and development; so America can continue to be a world leader in innovation and scientific breakthroughs.

We all know health care costs are among the greatest drivers of our mounting national deficits and debt. We have two paths forward: One, where we cut and constrain and reduce spending, and another where we invest in basic science and research, where we innovate and where we cure our way out of these challenges. I think this latter way of investing in our schools, our infrastructure, our innovation, and in finding path-breaking cures is more true to the American spirit.

Cuts to essential services and programs are already deep. Although this is not broadly known throughout the country, sacrifices have already been made here, and pennies are already being pinched from programs that, in my view, serve the people who can least afford them.

In my home State of Delaware, due to choices we have made here, we have already seen cuts to critical programs such as heating assistance to low-income families and programs such as the community development block grants. Home programs were cut roughly 30 percent in last year's budget, programs that for so long have supported affordable housing for the disabled, for seniors, and for low-income families.

We must continue to make cuts across the board to move our way toward a sustainable Federal deficit. But cuts alone cannot responsibly make our path forward, and we have seen proposals in the other Chamber that would decimate vital safety net programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, shifting the burden of deficit reduction to our most vulnerable citizens. We need to bring balance back to how we solve these problems. We need to do it in a way that puts a circle of protection around those who are most vulnerable in our society.

In previous generations that served in this Chamber, when they came together and reached the resolutions that solved our country's fiscal problems, in 1983, for example, they put a circle of protection around the most vulnerable Americans. They chose not to slash or cut or eliminate those programs that were focused on the most vulnerable in our society: the disabled, low-income seniors, and children in the earliest stages of life.

I think it is important that we remember those values as we look at the choices we make today and as we come together in the months leading up to the election--and, hopefully, after the election--to craft a solution to our structural problem.

Today on the floor the Senate is considering the other piece of the equation from cuts, revenue. We have a stark choice between us today. We have two plans: a Reid plan and a Hatch plan. We have a Democratic proposal and a Republican proposal. Let me put this in some context that I think has been missing in some of the speeches I have heard on the floor earlier today.

In both cases these are plans that make choices about which of our existing tax cuts, which of the existing tax expenditures we will allow to expire and which we will extend. There is a lot of talk about the coming taxmageddon, about the greatest one-time tax increase in American history. But let's be clear. What we are talking about is tax cuts that were enacted in 2001 and 2003 and other tax cuts that were enacted in 2009, 2010, and whether they should be extended or whether these temporary tax cuts should be allowed to be that and expire.

We have two starkly different plans. In one, the Republican plan, they extend all of the Bush tax cuts, even for the highest income earners, even on the marginal rates of the highest income earners. The Democratic plan extends and does not allow to expire critical tax cuts: the earned-income tax credit, the tuition tax credit, and the child tax credit that 25 million Americans--the working poor, working families with children--rely on to get through this difficult recession.

The Republican plan allows all three of those to expire, and thus, to use their language, raises taxes on 25 million of the working poor. It should be an obscenity for there to be people who are working full time and get poor in this country. This is a country, as I said before, of opportunity; the place to which millions have come over generations from around the world seeking the opportunity of this country.

Yet, today, and especially in this economy, ``working poor'' has real meaning, as the rate of poverty has risen to alarming levels, where one in six is poor today, which is the highest since the 1960s. The economic inequality and lack of opportunity and justice for those who are the poorest is at an alarming rate.

We also have, as I said before, a structural challenge before us, a deficit and debt that we must deal with. So the Democratic plan that is on the floor today, which we will vote on today--on whether this body wants to proceed to take a deciding vote on it--would allow the marginal tax rate above $200,000 for individuals, $250,000 for couples, to return to the Clinton era.

Let's be clear because I think this is often lost. Under the Democratic tax plan, we would continue tax breaks for all Americans who earn income and for all small businesses that are revenue-earning but just on the first $200,000 of individual income or $250,000 of couple income. So even the millionaires and billionaires would continue to get some of the benefit of the tax breaks first enacted in 2001 and 2003. What would be raised is the tax rate on income above $250,000 per couple. So everybody continues to get some tax advantage, but the excessive--the highest reductions in tax burden on the very wealthiest Americans we would allow to expire.

What would the impact be on our deficit and debt? It would be $850 billion over 10 years, which, with the interest savings, is nearly $1 trillion in deficit and debt reduction. These are significant savings. If we ask the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to take on that burden, to go back to the interest rates on marginal income that they lived through in the Clinton era, what might that do? It will significantly reduce the deficit and debt and make it possible for us to sustain the earned-income tax credit, the tuition tax credit, and the child tax credit, and, frankly, it will reflect our values.

This recession has brought an alarming rise in the rate of poverty. I believe our faith traditions--and we come from a very broad range of faith traditions--speak to us and challenge us to show our values. As the Vice President, who held the seat in Delaware before me, has so often said, his father once said to him: Show me your budget, and I will show you your values.

Psalm 72 teaches us that to defend the cause of the poor and to give deliverance to the needy is one of our highest callings. It is repeated throughout the books of the Torah and the New Testament--in many faith traditions all across this country. To reject this deliverance to the needy, to reject the circle of protection for the neediest in our society and instead say that we will extend ad infinitum the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans defies American values and our greatest tradition of creating and sustaining opportunity while protecting the most vulnerable among us.

I think our belief in the American dream and our commitment to basic fairness and responsible problem-solving calls us forward to vote for the Reid plan.

This bill is not a substitute for the comprehensive tax reform our Nation truly needs. We need tax reform that simplifies the Tax Code and closes many unsustainable and costly loopholes while lowering rates and broadening the base. In the current political environment, I believe this bill, to which I hope this body will turn, is the best chance we have at retaining these important tax credits and opportunities for the working poor while bringing some sanity to the rates at the highest end and asking those who benefited the most to contribute to solving our problems.

Last week I got a letter from Judith in Talleyville, Delaware, who wrote my office saying this:

Millionaires and billionaires must be asked to pay their fair share toward economic recovery.

Judith puts her finger on the crux of the issue. If we are going to address our deficit crisis and resolve the hole at the bottom of America's balance sheet in a way that reflects our core values, I believe we must move to and consider and pass the Reid plan in this Senate this day.


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