Schumer Floor Remarks Calling On Senator McConnell To Commit To Hold A Stand-Alone Vote On 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund Legislation Immediately After House Passage, Escalating Tensions With Iran, And The Trump Administration’s Failed Approach To Immigration

June 24, 2019

Washington, D.C.U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer today spoke on the Senate floor regarding the need for Senator McConnell to commit to hold a stand-alone vote on 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund legislation, escalating tensions with Iran, and the need for a discussion about commonsense policy changes that would adequately address the situation at the border. Below are his remarks, which can also be found here.

Mr. President, tomorrow, my friend John Feal and fellow survivors who were first responders on September the 11th will visit with Leader McConnell to press for the passage of legislation to fix the shortfall in the Victim Compensation Fund.

This is the fund that awards compensation to the families of 9/11 responders who die from 9/11-related illnesses, often cancers and fatal respiratory illnesses.

It makes me sick to my stomach that every time we have this debate, these suffering first responders, many in wheelchairs, are forced to travel to Washington to shame politicians into supporting their health care.

I’m sick of all these delays. I’m tired of temporary reauthorizations. And I’ve had enough of watching our first responders endure the indignity of waiting for a last-minute, must-pass bill to hide their issue, so that members won’t vote against it. It shouldn’t be this way, and it shouldn’t be this hard to pass aid for our 9/11 responders and everyone who worked on the Pile in the weeks and months thereafter.

Now, who’s been standing in the way? At the top of the list, unfortunately, is my colleague the Republican Leader. Leader McConnell has got to do the right thing here. He’s meeting with these brave responders, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not enough. By the end of the meeting, he should promise them—and promise all of us—that he will put the victim compensation fund fix on the floor as soon as it passes the House, as a standalone bill. No more delays for these brave people. No more delays for people like Ray Pfeifer, my dear friend who passed away, having to come to Washington five or six times in his wheelchair, begging and pleading—not for himself, he knew that the cancer was fatal for him--but for his colleagues and allies. Let’s do the right thing here. Let’s do the right thing Leader McConnell.

On another matter. Amid escalating tensions with Iran, the president today announced a new round of sanctions. It remains unclear what, if any, strategy this latest round of sanctions fits into and whether this latest round of sanctions will compel Iran’s leaders to alter their current course. I worry that the president continues down a path of escalation.

Besides a small group of hawkish advisors and Republican cheerleaders in Congress, nobody wants a war with Iran. The American people are weary of endless wars in the Middle East; the trillions of dollars wasted, the thousands of American lives lost. Americans want the money spent here at home on things like our crumbling infrastructure. Americans don’t want to see their sons and daughters die in a war that seems to go on forever, without a conclusion.

And while I’m not convinced the president is eager to go to war, I am very concerned that he could bumble us into war. His strategy seems erratic, changing from day to day and week to week. It seems opaque. There is no real discussion outside of his little clique of advisors. And it seems to sometimes contradict itself.

Exchanges of aggression can escalate and cascade quickly in the Middle East. Provocations can spin out of control. And the president’s lack of a steady hand, lack of transparency, and above all, his lack of strategy make the danger of escalation even more distinct and worrisome.

It is also worrisome that John Bolton and Secretary Pompeo, advocates for the conflict, appear to be leading the charge, while there is no confirmed Secretary of Defense to pull back the reins. And it’s interesting that it seems to be the Department of Defense that are the reins on the president. They know the limits of what we can do without escalation, and the kind of endless war that our soldiers and our military leaders have always fought for this country, no matter what the consequences.

So let me be clear: if the president is going to engage the United States in another war in the Middle East, he’s going to have to convince the American people, and he’s going to have to come to Congress for authorization.

One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into a war is to have a robust, open debate, and for Congress to have some say. We learned that lesson in the run-up to Iraq.

Democrats have an amendment to the NDAA led by Senators Udall, Merkley, Murphy, and Kaine, that would prohibit any funds authorized by the NDAA to be used to conduct hostilities against the government of Iran. It makes eminent sense to consider this amendment on our annual defense bill. It’s germane. It’s timely.

Considering the gravity of the situation with Iran, Democrats believe the full Senate should be present to vote on the Udall amendment. Leader McConnell is no doubt aware that several members of this body will be absent this week for the Democratic presidential debates. We should wait to have the vote until the full body is present.

There is no rush to complete the NDAA. We have passed it very frequently later in the year, with no harmful consequences to our military. We should have the vote on the Udall amendment, which is an urgency, before we bumble into war. And, it should occur when every Senator is able to cast their vote.

Last week, the Republican leader promised the Senate would hold an open amendment process on the NDAA. We have critical national security issues to debate, including Iran, including election security. Will the Republican leader keep his word and allow this debate to go forward?

For much of this year, Leader McConnell—unfortunately, and now becoming known from one end of America to another—has turned the Senate into a legislative graveyard, where we hardly, if ever, vote on the prevailing issue of the day. Will the Majority Leader let the Senate have this important vote? Or is this another issue, another debate—the ability to fund a war—that will be buried in his legislative graveyard?

I hope he will not continue his shameful record of ducking the issues of the day when it comes to something as important as Congress’ role in the matters of war and peace.

Finally, Mr. President, on the border. After a week of making the chilling, nasty, obnoxious threats about mass arrests and deportation of “millions” of immigrants, President Trump backed off on Sunday and demanded concessions from Democrats in exchange. In doing so, the president reminded the American people that he might be incapable of having a rational discussion about challenges at the border. Look at the things he’s gone through: tariffs, close the border. Issue after issue, he makes threats and then backs off because none of them make any sense. None of them have been thought through. The president seems far more comfortable terrorizing immigrant families than actually coming up with real solutions.

I mean, my God, to threaten separating children from their parents as a bargaining chip? That’s the very definition of callousness. That’s something that the vast majority of Americans would abhor, and he goes right ahead and does it.

Unfortunately, however, this is typical of the president’s approach to the border. For two years, President Trump has said he wants to fix the problems at the border, but just about every action he’s taken has made things worse. He shut down the government in a failed attempt to fund an ineffective wall; he threatened to close the border entirely until the business community rebelled and said it would really hurt our economy and our workers; he threatened destructive tariffs with Mexico, and he has cut off security assistance to Central American countries that helps curb the violence and lawlessness that contributes to the flow of migrants in the first place.

His administration has separated children from their parents abhorrently, kept them in cages, let them suffer in horrible conditions in for-profit detention centers that are little better than modern-day internment camps.

These are not the actions of an administration that’s trying to solve a problem. It seems that the president is incapable of saying it’s a real problem. He thinks it is, and people agree that we have to do something at the border—we all do. But instead of actually bringing experts in and solving the problem, he is emotional, appeals to the dark side of human nature, and then is totally inconsistent and is on to doing the next thing.

Any objective observer would say the president doesn’t want solve this problem, he’s rather trying to exploit it for what he thinks will be his political benefit—although it sure didn’t work in the month before the 2018 election. To exploit an issue like this because he thinks it will benefit him politically, even if it means mistreating children and striking fear into the hearts of millions of people living in the U.S., is disgraceful.

The thing is, we can have a rational conversation about this. This week, the Senate will consider a bipartisan agreement on supplemental appropriations for the border. That’s a good thing. I salute Senator Shelby, a Republican, and Senator Leahy, a Democrat, for coming together on a proposal that got 30 of the 31 votes on the Appropriations Committee. It shows you we can be rational and compromise and get something done on the border, even if it doesn’t meet everybody’s needs one percent of the way.

Beyond that, we Democrats continue to propose commonsense changes that would address what’s happening at the border and deal with the root causes of the problem:

  • America, doesn’t it make sense to tell these people from Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and Honduras that they can claim asylum in their own countries and not go through a thousand-mile trek, often expensive because they have to pay coyotes to the northern border of Mexico with the United States? Of course it does.
  • Doesn’t it make sense to have more immigration judges to reduce the backlog in cases?
  • And doesn’t it make sense to provide security assistance and help to those three Central American countries to combat the scourge of drug cartels, violent gangs, and lawlessness that has pushed migrants to journey north because they don’t want their child murdered or raped as the gangs always threaten.

Both parties can support these policies. President Trump can support these policies. But so far the President has shown a shameful lack of willingness to engage with the real problems at the border, preferring demagoguery and fearmongering to progress.