Schumer Floor Remarks On Leader McConnell’s Meeting With 9/11 First Responders, The Need For Votes On Amendments To The NDAA, Democrats’ Commonsense Border Solutions, And The Anniversary Of The Shelby V. Holder Decision

June 25, 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, the need for a vote on an amendment to the NDAA concerning possible conflict with Iran, Democrats’ commonsense solutions to grapple with challenges at the border, and the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Shelby v. Holder decision. Below are his remarks, which can also be found here.

Thank you, Madam President. Now before I begin: I’ve just heard the Leader conclude his remarks. He didn’t mention the fact that today he’s meeting with several constituents of mine from New York, including John Feal and other 9/11 first responders, to discuss a solution to the shortfall in the victims’ compensation fund. I’m glad the Leader has agreed to meet with them. It’s a good thing. But it’s not enough to have just a meeting; these brave men and women who rushed to the towers selflessly, in the midst of danger, when no one knew what would come next—they deserve a commitment that their bill will be considered in a timely manner here on the floor.

So again I urge Leader McConnell: listen to the 9/11 first responders, then give them your commitment, Leader McConnell, that you’ll put their bill on the Senate floor as soon as it passed the House—as a stand-alone bill. It’ll have passed the House, it will certainly pass the Senate given the cosponsorship. The president will sign it. The families of those who, just like our soldiers, rushed to danger to protect our safety, can breathe a sigh of relief.

Leader McConnell is the one person—this is not a dual responsibility, I wish it were. At least, when we were in the minority. But, Leader McConnell is the one person who controls the calendar on the Senate floor. He can stand in the way, as he has done before, or he can right things and commit to give this bill the attention it deserves. I’ll be eagerly waiting to hear what the Leader says after he meets with the first responders this afternoon.

Now, on Iran and the NDAA. Ever since President Trump unilaterally decided to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement, our two countries have been on a path to greater conflict. In the past month, Iran has heightened its aggressive actions in the region, prompting responses from the U.S. government.

No one looks at Iran through rose-colored glasses. That’s why Americans, myself included, are worried about the current course of events. Escalation happens quickly in the Middle East. Without a steady hand at the helm, without a coherent plan or strategy, things this president has lacked since the moment he took office, the danger of bumbling into war is acute.

So Democrats have been urging Leader McConnell to allow us a vote on an amendment to the NDAA concerning a possible conflict with Iran. We have an amendment led by Senators Udall, Merkley, Murphy and Kaine—cosponsored by Republican Senators Paul and Lee—that would prohibit any funds authorized by the current NDAA to be used to conduct hostilities against the government of Iran.

Again, this is a dangerous situation. Even if the President doesn’t intend war, his erratic, inconsistent, and off-the-cuff policies could lead us to bumble into war. And when we are in war, it doesn’t matter how we got there. The loss of life, and the loss of treasure, when we need so much attention here in America, is very real.

Contrary to what the Leader just said: the Udall amendment would not, would not diminish our military’s ability to respond to a provocation or act in self-defense. The way the Leader characterized the amendment is just not true. He deliberately distorted the amendment. He knows better. The Udall amendment preserves—absolutely—our military’s ability to act in self-defense. And it would make it perfectly clear that if President Trump wants to send our nation to war, he would need Congress to authorize it first, as stipulated by our Constitution.

There is no greater power that the Founding Fathers gave to Congress than the ability to go to war. They were worried about an executive who might be overreaching, who might be erratic, who might be inconsistent. And we have never had an executive who fits those categories more than this president. And they wanted Congress to be a check. If the president has to explain why he wishes to go to war, he might be more consistent, and certainly less opaque. And so we should have this amendment on the merits, but we also should have it because this is how the Senate should work.

Leader McConnell said that he would have an open amendment process. Here’s what he said: “[We’ll] be turning to the NDAA shortly, that's one of the most important bills we do every year. It will be open for amendment.” Leader McConnell’s words, not mine. “We expect to have a lot of member participation.” Leader McConnell’s words, not mine. “It will be open for amendment,” said Leader McConnell.

That meaning is pretty plain, but I must have misheard. So must have America, because the NDAA is not—let me repeat, NOT—open for amendment. Not even for a serious, timely, and relevant debate on our policy with respect to Iran. Not even for a debate on the matter of war and peace, and the constitutional prerogative of this body to authorize it or not. And it’s not just this amendment that’s being excluded. My friend, the senior senator from Minnesota, will offer an amendment on election security. Important to our national security. A Republican colleague will block it. No amendments. There are so many clamoring on both sides of the aisle that the Senate go back to amending. If we can’t do it on this bill, we’re not going to do it at all this year!

This is too common—no amendments, no bills. A graveyard, in Leader McConnell’s Senate. No Senator has been allowed to vote on one of their amendments for months. This is simply not how the Senate is supposed to be.  

So I would urge Leader McConnell, for the sake of the Senate and for the sake of war and peace, and for the sake of the constitution to allow us to vote on our amendments. The Leader should not run the NDAA like he’s run the Senate for much of this year, as a legislative graveyard, where issues of consequence are buried so that the callous political interests of the president and the Leader can march forward atop their graves.

Now, on the border.

As the Senate moves to consider a supplemental appropriations bill on the border, I want to turn my colleagues attention to what is transpiring there. Over the past few months, we have read reports and seen images of deplorable conditions.

At the Homestead facility in Florida, the Trump Administration has allowed a for-profit detention company to operate what amounts to a modern-day internment camp. Children, ripped away from their parents, kept in cages, denied nutrition, hygiene, diapers, toothbrushes.

How can our country do this? And all because some in the president’s purview think that might deter immigrants: using these poor little children: two years old, four years old, we read about one four months old, as hostages, and cruelly treat them. It’s a black mark on our country. It’s a black mark on those that allow it to happen at the Homestead facility in Florida and other places.

Think about what law enforcement would do if a parent denied their child this kind of basic care; toothbrushes and diapers, put them in cages. Why on earth would it be acceptable for a government to do the same?

Along with millions of Americans, I am appalled—appalled—by these conditions. And I am appalled by the thought that some in the Trump Administration may actually want these deplorable conditions to continue because they think it will deter future migrants. Migrants who were running away. Not because they’re drug dealers, not because they’re MS13 members, but because their children have been threatened by gangs. ‘I’m going to murder your son unless you do what I want.’ ‘I’m going to rape your daughter unless you do what I want.’ Who wouldn’t flee? These are not evil people!

To rip kids away from their parents, to separate families as a policy – to discourage immigrants fleeing violence, lawlessness and degradation—is sick and twisted. It’s inhumane. The people who are in charge of this mess should be ashamed of themselves. And I can think of no other president—Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative—who would allow this to continue.

Now, we’re working on a compromise appropriations bill here in the Senate to try to provide more resources and better conditions for these kids and families. But we have to grapple with the real challenges at the border, and do more to reduce the number of migrants who feel they need to flee their countries in the first place.

And that’s why Democrats have proposed to hire more immigration judges at the border, to reduce the backlog of cases and reduce the number of migrants that are held in limbo. That’s why we’ve applied to allowing asylum seekers to apply for asylum in their own countries, not at our border. It makes eminent sense. And that’s why we’ve proposed additional security assistance to Central American countries to crack down on drug cartels, gangs, and human trafficking, to stem the violence that impels so many to make the journey north, that’s so perilous.

These are the kinds of policies we should be talking about. They’re not controversial. They’re not partisan. They’re simply commonsense. Commonsense solutions to the problems that both parties have witnessed. The president, this president needs to end the inhumanity of his administration’s border management and work instead, with us, on real solutions.

Finally, and I appreciate my colleagues waiting, but there’s a lot going on here. Finally, today marks the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Shelby v. Holder, where a conservative majority undercut decades of progress by gutting key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It will go down as one of the lowest moments of the Roberts Court. And when Justice Roberts says he’s not political and that he calls “balls and strikes,” the Shelby decision is an overwhelming and persuasive argument that that is not the case with this Chief Justice. 

Few pieces of legislation have reshaped America for the better quite like the Voting Rights Act. But six years ago, in a narrow 5-4 decision, the Court eliminated important safeguards in the law. By the majority’s reckoning, such provisions were no longer needed because discrimination was no longer a problem. Discrimination was no longer a problem? Hello? Hello? The Court said it. Justice Roberts signed a decision. Mr. Balls and Strikes, saying there’s no discrimination in America anymore. Wasn’t a problem.

Well, in the six years since Shelby, 19 states have instituted voting restrictions, including laws in North Carolina that the 4th Circuit said “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.” No more discrimination? Prior to the Court’s decision in Shelby, North Carolina would have been required to seek approval from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division before enacting these pernicious laws. One of many examples of how state and local officials have been freed up to implement discriminatory laws while the courts struggle to keep up.

Now, in ordinary times, the Senate would debate ways to reinstate the safeguards that the Court abolished in Shelby. We’d debate policies like automatic voter registration and restrictions on discriminatory voter ID laws as in efforts that we would make to make it easier, safer, and more reliable for Americans to vote. That’s what Senate Democrats have proposed. But of course, once again, Leader McConnell has transformed the Senate into a legislative graveyard, where inaction is the order of the day. What a shame that the Leader believes something as crucial as ensuring that Americans can exercise the franchise is unworthy of the Senate’s time.