Schumer Floor Remarks On The Progress Made To Avoid A Partial Government Shutdown, Passage Of The First Step Act, Trade Negotiations With China, And Senator Bill Nelson

December 19, 2018

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer today spoke on the Senate floor (at approximately 10:40 a.m.) regarding progress made to avoid a partial government shutdown, the Senate passage of criminal justice reform legislation, trade negotiations with China, and Senator Bill Nelson. Below are his remarks, which can also be viewed here:

Mr. President, we have a short time left before appropriations expire on Friday.

Yesterday we made some progress. Thankfully, President Trump appears to have backed down from his position for billions in direct appropriations for a border wall. For the past several weeks, the president’s insistence on $5 billion for a wall has been the biggest obstacle to keeping the government open past Friday.

The president’s spokesperson has claimed that the administration can reprogram funds given to other areas of the government to build the full wall. Let me be very clear: the administration cannot reprogram funds appropriated by Congress for the full wall without our assent, to do so would violate Congress’ Article I powers. They cannot do it on their own and the House and Senate will not approve a wall from reprogrammed funds or anything else. It won’t happen.

Now, we Democrats have opposed massive appropriations for a border wall for several reasons: it’s not effective compared to other border security measures. Expert after expert has said that. There’s no plan to build it, the president asked for $5 billion, sent us no plans; where it would be, how much it would cost, each part, what it would be made of. There is no plan to deal with eminent domain. There are lots of people on the Texas border and other borders who don’t want to give up their land. They’ve said they’ll fight it in court, that will take years. We have not heard a peep out of the administration on how to deal with that. And above all, the president promised Mexico would pay for it, not the American taxpayer. It was a campaign issue, yes, but throughout the president said Mexico would pay for it. He never campaigned on Americans paying for a massive border wall, ineffective as it would be.

So Democrats have been perfectly clear: we want smart, effective border security – but that’s not a wall. The president and just this morning the Republican Leader have called out repeatedly for suggesting Democrats are against all border security. Of course we’re not! Every expert has looked at that and said it’s a total lie. But frankly, the reason our colleagues, the president, Leader McConnell, and others do it is they have no defense of the wall. So instead of defending the wall, they say Democrats are not for border security. Nothing could be further from the truth as shown by what we have supported in the past and today.

This morning, the president also tweeted that Mexico could somehow pay for the wall through a new trade deal. This is a huge turnaround for a president who once insisted, “Mark my words: Mexico will pay for the wall. 100%.” Of course, there have been multiple fact checks that show a new NAFTA could not possibly fund a wall, directly or indirectly. There is nothing in the new agreement that stipulates Mexico must devote any resources to the United States. And any ‘savings’ from a trade deal -- if there are any savings -- don’t go to the treasury, they go to American businesses and American taxpayers. Ultimately, the president would have to tax the American people to fund his wall – Mexico ain’t footing the bill.

With all that said, it’s good news that the president has retreated from his demand that Congress fund the wall.

Now, we Democrats in the Senate and in the House, we have made two reasonable offers that I believe would glide through the House and Senate: one, pass the six bipartisan appropriations bills and one-year CR for DHS or two, a one-year CR for all seven appropriations bills.

Leader McConnell has proposed a short-term CR just a few minutes ago. We would have preferred one of our two options but I’m glad the Leader thinks the government should not shut down over the president’s demand for a wall. And Democrats will support this CR. The president and the House should follow that lead, because shutting down the government over Christmas is a terrible idea – one of the worst to come down the pike in a very long time.

Now, on criminal justice reform, I want to thank everyone, really deeply and heartfelt, who was involved in the criminal justice reform legislation. Senator Durbin, for whom this issue was a years-long passion. When Senator Durbin gets his teeth into an issue, he doesn’t let go until he achieves it. And he is great at getting it done. It’s a real victory for him.

Senator Booker, who really felt this issue so passionately from his residence in Newark and seeing what has happened to friends of his, people he has known. And he was really, really a brilliant legislative tactician, knowing just how far to push, getting the most he could, in a Congress that was not controlled by our side of the aisle.

Senator Whitehouse, who carried the mantle of making sure that while people are in prison, they are given adequate preparation so when they come out, they don’t become recidivists again, free from drugs, job training, so they can become useful and productive members of society.

And Senator Harris, who added her passion and experience as Attorney General to the great arguments of this bill.   And, I don’t want to leave out colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Senator Grassley played a real role as a statesmen. Senator Lee did tremendous work on this bill. And again, like Senator Booker, from an opposite point of view, knew when to hold and knew when to fold. 

So, I thank all of them, because this bill will make an extraordinary difference in countless lives: by making our sentencing laws fairer and smarter by giving judges more discretion, so low-level, non-violent drug offenses aren’t always subject to arbitrary mandatory minimums; by giving prisoners with good behavior who work hard to rehabilitate themselves better opportunities to prepare for integration back into society as productive citizens who can contribute to their communities; and by ending the most abusive practices of our criminal justice system like juvenile solitary confinement and the shackling of pregnant prisoners.

The bill got 87 votes. Those 87 votes are an entreaty to the new Congress to do more. It’s called the First Step Act for a lot of reasons, but one of which is that many of us feel we have to go further and do more. Next year hopefully we can and the resounding support on both sides of the aisle that this bill got should help us, should importune us to not just let this be the last proposal, but the first on this area.

This law will bring more justice to our justice system. I was proud to vote for it and so grateful for the work of my colleagues who pulled a diverse coalition together to get it across the line.

On China, negotiations are ongoing between the Trump administration and Chinese officials about a potential détente in our trading relationship. Of import to the Chinese is the recent arrest of the Huawei CFO on charges of violating US sanctions law, which is only one area of concern when it comes to Huawei’s technology.

Let me be very clear: the United States should not make any – any – concessions until and unless China makes credible and enforceable commitments to end all forms of theft and extortion of American intellectual property. 

As Ambassador Lighthizer recently pointed out – and I cannot commend him enough for the job he’s doing – during the Obama administration alone, China made no less than ten independent claims or commitments to get rid of forced technology transfers and cyber theft policies. As we know, China’s cyber espionage continues unabated. Just last week, it was confirmed that China was behind the data breach of Marriott Hotels.

And we know, China continues to require so many companies that sell things in China to transfer their technology. If we continue on this path that we have for the last 10 or 15 years, we will no longer be the leading economy in the world. All the great ideas that Americans have because of our free and open and entrepreneurial system will be stolen, purloined, and China will dominate. We’re there for fair competition.

China doesn’t compete fairly, and I have to say, neither the Bush nor the Obama administration stood up strongly to China. This administration shows signs of doing it. My message to President Trump: don’t back off. Follow Mr. Lighthizer, not those in your administration, like Mr. Mnuchin and others, Mr. Ross – who want to settle for next to nothing. That would be a disgrace. President Trump has tried the conciliatory approach. He let ZTE off the hook in the hopes of gaining concessions from China on North Korea – and got none. North Korea continues to expand its nuclear capabilities.

So Mr. President, do not make the same mistake again by interfering in the case of Huawei’s CFO. And Mr. President, do not capitulate on US trade policy without meaningful, ironclad commitments from China to end its predatory trade practices, its theft of our intellectual property, and until China allows US companies to compete freely in its markets without technology transfers or other coercions. To do so otherwise would put the future of this great nation at great risk.

Now finally, Mr. President, I’ve come here to speak about a great friend and a wonderful colleague, the Senior Senator from Florida, Bill Nelson.

A Floridian born and bred, Bill Nelson didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Everything he’s achieved in life he achieved because he worked for it. Hard work is one of his credos. In high school, Bill raised cattle in his spare time. Not every teenager’s idea of a good time, and something we never did in Brooklyn.

But it led to a lifetime association with Florida’s 4-H program, which continues to support Florida’s agricultural community today.

And just as important, Bill’s extracurricular animal husbandry allowed him to save up the $10,000 he needed to attend college at the University of Florida.

Public service was never far from this generous man’s thoughts. He gave his first political speech as a candidate for junior high school president, a race he won. In college, he interned for Florida Senator George Smathers, whose son Bruce happened to be his roommate.

But that internship turned out to be the lesser contribution of Bill’s friendship with Bruce. Because a few years after law school, Bruce would introduce Bill to Grace Cavert, who became Grace Nelson – the love of Bill’s life. For those of us who know Bill, we know he loves Grace more than anything in the world, and they are truly a dream team. Just to watch them together, caring about each other so brings joy to anyone’s heart, certainly mine.

Many of my colleagues, of course, know Grace and have worked with her closely, not the least reason being that she’s the authority in that household today.

With Grace by his side, Senator Nelson embarked on what would become a distinguished career of public service in Florida, as Congressman, Tax Commissioner, and eventually Senator. Of course, along the way, Senator Nelson would also earn the title of “payload specialist” aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.

As most folks know, then-Congressman Nelson, who was chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee, participated in a weeklong spaceflight on the Columbia. What most folks don’t know, however, was that the launch for the mission was aborted not once, not twice, but three times. Eventually, though, liftoff was achieved, and Bill became only the second sitting member of Congress to leave Earth’s atmosphere, where, in his words, he saw “the blue brilliance of the earth from the edge of the heavens.”

There’s a name given to the shift in perspective experienced by astronauts called the overview effect. Seeing the earth from the window of a space shuttle – that pale blue marble in the vast emptiness of space – makes you realize just how fragile and also how beautiful our planet truly is. Senator Nelson experienced something of an overview effect and, though he already cared about the environment, he became a lifelong champion of environmental causes.

Bill Nelson protected and preserved the Everglades, Florida’s beaches, and offshore waters by standing against offshore drilling. There’s none in Florida, but I have to say the reason is sitting right to my left, Bill Nelson. Time and time again, when rapacious companies wanted to drill and risk the beauty of Florida’s coastline and its economic vitality, there was Bill Nelson – like Horatio at the bridge, preventing it from happening. After the BP oil spill, Bill Nelson made sure Florida’s gulf communities got the restitution they deserved from BP’s settlement. And Senator Nelson has always been a loud voice speaking about the need for action on climate change, as his beautiful, beloved state of Florida gets hit by ever more powerful storms, and the low lying areas like Miami get flooded regularly.

Of course, seeing the earth from space didn’t just focus Bill’s eyes downward. (This man is capable of doing many, many good things at once.) He kept them firmly fixed on the horizons. Mr. President, it will be a long time before the Senate sees a champion for NASA and space exploration like Bill Nelson. It may never see one as committed again.

The Senate, the state of Florida, and the country will miss Bill Nelson, as will Iris and I. He was even-tempered in tempestuous times; he was always civil in the midst of such incivility; and when so many of us are prone to looking backward, trying to figure out what we did wrong or what we could have done differently, Bill was always looking forward…and upward.

I have had just the pleasure, not only of being Bill’s colleague, but being his friend. What a fine human being. One of my greatest regrets here is that some fine human beings are not going to be with us next time. And this chamber and the country will show they are missed. There’s nothing he’s looking forward to more than spending time with his beloved Grace and visiting his children Bill Jr. and Nan Ellen. Every one of us salutes the great Senior Senator from Florida – everything he’s accomplished in his distinguished career in the Senate, and just the great man that he is.