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Schumer Floor Remarks on the Need for Bipartisanship on Healthcare and an Aid Package for Puerto Rico

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer today delivered remarks on the Senate floor regarding the need for bipartisanship on healthcare and calling on the Senate to pass an aid package for Puerto Rico. Below are his remarks:

First, let me thank my dear friend, colleague from Illinois, for his remarks. As usual, he is one of the most articulate members on either side. He is also one of the most thoughtful and compassionate. I hope people will listen to what he had to say.

Mr. President, I must respond to what the Majority Leader said this morning on healthcare.              

My friend Sen. McConnell continues to try to create this straw man because he has nothing to say good about his bill. He continues to try to make the healthcare debate about a false choice between Graham-Cassidy on their side and “single payer” on our side. But as Sen. Sanders and Sen. Klobuchar, who did an excellent job last night in the debate on CNN, made clear, Democrats have a lot of ideas about how to improve healthcare. Each of them endeavors to increase coverage, improve the quality of care, and lower the cost of care. None…none of the Republican plans manage to achieve those goals.

That’s the difference. The difference is one side wants to cut health care to average Americans, increase premiums, give the insurance companies far more freedom, and one side wants to increase care, the number of people covered, lower premiums, better coverage. That's the divide. Now, our colleagues won't debate that issue. They believe it. They believe, let the market have more to say. We've learned that left alone, the poor little consumer against the big market gets crushed in health care because there are infirmities, it doesn't work like a regular market for a whole lot of reasons. We're happy to have a debate. Does Graham-Cassidy expand or reduce health care?

They're rushing this through so we don't get a full CBO report. I'm sure my colleagues on the other side of the aisle maybe breathe some relief there.  The CBO concluded that Graham-Cassidy would likely cause costs to go way up for older Americans and for Americans with pre-existing conditions. The CBO said that Graham-Cassidy would greatly reduce coverage by gutting Medicaid and reducing the subsidies that help Americans afford insurance.

So there is indeed a contrast between our two parties on healthcare is as clear as day. It is a contrast we welcome. Every Republican plan this year would cause millions to lose insurance and costs to go up; whereas Democrats are looking at many different ideas about how to achieve the exact opposite.

As my colleague said, we want to work in a bipartisan way to improve the existing system. Senator Alexander and Senator Murray have had great negotiations. Once this repeal effort is gone, this repeal and replace, we're willing -- eager -- to sit down and come up with bipartisan improvements and do it in the regular order. As some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle have correctly and courageously recommended: Do it in regular order. They've already, Senators Alexander and Murray, they've had hearings. They have called in witnesses. They've had a lot of bipartisan discussions—just what this body is supposed to do. So let's realize that Graham-Cassidy is highly unpopular with the American people. It doesn't do what some are saying it does. It cuts health care. Democrats don't want to do that. Neither do the American people. Let's move on and tried to make our – and try to make our system better.

One other thing, Mr. President, on the main subject that I'm going to speak on today. Instead of trying to take healthcare away from millions of Americans, the Senate and the White House should focus on a much more pressing matter this week – the desperate situation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

After suffering the winds and rains of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the island of Puerto Rico has been completely devastated. I can’t recall in my lifetime a hurricane wreaking such devastation on any part of the United States. Its people, 3.5 million American citizens, face one of the gravest humanitarian crises in recent memory.

Listen to these facts:

  • Nearly the entire island is still without power and reserves of gas and diesel are dangerously low, maybe 20 days left. I read in the paper this morning, 80% of the major power lines, the big trunk lines that deliver power, are down. You don't have power, just think of what that does.
  •          The Governor of Puerto Rico last night said that roughly 40% of people on the island lack access to potable water. Some estimates say as many as 65% don’t have access to potable water. The food supply is dwindling and people are without food.
  •          Fewer than 250 of the island’s 1,600 cellphone towers are operational. I remember just the day of 9/11 when cell phone service went out in New York and I couldn't reach my daughters. Well, this has been going on for days and days and days.
  •          The damage to one of the largest dams on the island has created the need for another massive evacuation, but with 95% of cell phones out of service, the evacuations must be carried out by officials going door-to-door to the nearly 70,000 residents who are potentially in harm’s way.
  •          Worse still, the damage to Puerto Rico’s roads, bridges, and ports has isolated many communities and delayed the arrival of aid.

It is not hyperbolic to say that these two storms together have set Puerto Rico back decades. The damage is apocalyptic – it’s biblical. The situation on the U.S. Virgin Islands is similar. Words and statistics can hardly begin to describe the devastation these Americans are just beginning to grabble with. And it hit home. One of my staffers couldn't find an uncle. They found him in the Virgin Islands dead last night. So it hits home to our staff and to all Americans. Looking at the pictures and the news reports, the islands now resemble a war zone.

What we need to do now is provide aid to the island of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as quickly as humanly possible. Water. Food. Power. Shelter. They need help and they need it now.

Here’s what should happen:

President Trump must issue a full disaster declaration for all of Puerto Rico. Right now, 24 of the 78 municipalities on the island are not eligible for FEMA grants to rebuild their homes.

President Trump should also waive the local cost share requirement for emergency funds so Puerto Rico can rebuild without having to worry about falling even deeper into debt.

While our nation’s armed forces are already assisting in Puerto Rico, more needs to be done. As the most experienced part of our government in the movement of food, water, mobile power, and medical supplies, the Dept. of Defense should immediately determine what additional resources and capabilities can be deployed to aid Puerto Rico. If Secretary Mattis hasn’t already met with the Director of FEMA, I hope he will do it today.

And most importantly, the Administration should prepare an immediate and interim emergency aid request and the Majority Leader should put that package on the floor of the Senate before we leave this week. Anything less would be an abject failure of our duty to come to the aid of our fellow US Citizens.

The Administration submitted a request for aid for Hurricane Harvey less than a week after the storm made landfall. We are rapidly closing in on that same marker for Maria hitting Puerto Rico.

We need to move fast. We need to move now. Lives are at stake.

This morning I saw that President Trump tweeted that Puerto Rico was in “deep trouble” but that relief efforts were “doing well.”

With all due respect, President Trump, the relief efforts are not doing well, they’re not close to good enough.

All any American needs to do is open a newspaper or turn on a TV to know that Puerto Rico is not doing well.

In his tweets, President Trump also brought up the issue of Puerto Rico’s debt, which is a totally different issue and pales in comparison to the immediate humanitarian crisis that the Island faces.

Again, now is not the time, Mr. President. Puerto Rico needs help from aid workers, not debt collectors from Wall Street. Yes, Puerto Rico needs debt relief, but first they need humanitarian relief. Water. Food. Medicine. Fuel.

But this fits a pattern of how the President responds to natural disasters. He insists that relief and recovery efforts are “doing well” or “doing great” sometimes with no relation to the facts on the ground as if this is a public relations campaign and not a rescue, recovery and rebuilding operation. 

The time for tweets and talk is over, the American citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands need action and results. The best thing the President can do is get all the people in his Administration, all the relevant people together, and come up with an aid package, deliver it to us in the next day or two so we can pass it before we leave here this week.

Instead of trying to take health care away from millions of Americans, an effort that now appears doomed, the Trump Administration and the Republican Majority should put an emergency aid package on the floor before the week is out.

As Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan said earlier today: “We need to get our *act* together because people are dying.”

The situation is desperate. The need is urgent. It’s time to act now.