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Schumer Floor Remarks on Respecting the Tradition of Blue Slips, American Foreign Policy with North Korea and Iran, and High Prescription Drug Prices

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer spoke on the Senate floor regarding the need to respect the tradition of blue slips, the release of American hostages form North Korea, the president’s decision to exit from the Iran nuclear deal, and the need to address the rising cost of prescription drugs in America. Below are his remarks which can also be viewed here:

Madam President, later today, the Senate will vote on the confirmation of Michael Brennan to the 7th Circuit over the objections of one of his home-state Senators, Michael Baldwin, who has not returned a blue slip on his nomination.

It is an abject breach of a senatorial courtesy that both parties have long respected. In fact, the seat Mr. Brennan will fill on the 7th Circuit was held open for over six years by the senior Senator from Wisconsin via the same process, the blue slip. When Barack Obama was president, when Senator Leahy was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, we Democrats obeyed the blue slip and it led that seat to be vacant for six years. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, the Republican majority will ignore the blue-slip rights of a Democratic Senator, even though they fervently believe that we ought to listen to the rights of the Republican Senator of Wisconsin. And this, their actions, of the Republican Leader, so erodes one of the few remaining customs in the Senate that forces consultation and consensus on judicial nominations.

In the grand scheme of things, the vote today may seem to my colleagues like a small one; one judge, for one circuit court. But, in truth, the vote on Mr. Brennan is part of a death-by-a-thousand-cuts to the grand traditions of bipartisanship and comity in the United States Senate. I know, all too well, that there is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides of the aisle. But if we don’t take a step back now, the Senate will soon become either a rubber stamp or a graveyard for presidential nominees; rendering our “advice and consent” nearly meaningless.

I understand the pressure on the Leader from the hard right. They want judges who are not bipartisan. They wanted a judge in this case who would not go through a bipartisan judicial panel that has always sent us judges from Wisconsin, composed of Democrats and Republicans. Two were sent, but instead Brennan was sent, who couldn’t get through the panel. So this is so wrong. This goes beyond what we have seen done before. When Leader McConnell changed the rules on the Supreme Court, which we didn’t, many on the other side I understand said, ‘well, that’s tit for tat’ because Democrats changed the rules on the lower courts. But the blue- slip tradition has always been obeyed, we didn’t change that. We could have. We could have stuffed through our nominees with no Republican input, but we didn’t.

And so, I would hope for the sake of comity that one or two of my Republican colleagues stand up and vote against Mr. Brennan’s nomination. Not because of his beliefs, which they may agree with for all I know, but for the sake of the Senate; the grand tradition of the Senate; for the rights afforded to every Senator to consult on judges from their states, minority or majority; and for most of all the traditions that have held this body together for more than two centuries and separated it from the more partisan chamber on the other end of this Capitol.

On another matter, North Korea. Early this morning, the three American hostages who were being held in North Korea returned home. It was great to see them come home, be back in America. Back with their families. It’s a wonderful thing. But the exaltation by the president and the others of the greatness of North Korea doing this evades me.

We cannot be fooled into giving the North Korean regime credit for returning Americans that should never have been detained in the first place. Americans citizens are not diplomatic bargaining chips. So while we celebrate the return of the three Americans for the sake of their freedom and their families, we should not feel like we need to give Kim Jong-Un anything in return. That’s why it’s so troubling to hear President Trump say that Kim Jong-Un treated the Americans excellently. Kim Jong-Un is a dictator. He capriciously detained American citizens, robbed them of their freedom, didn’t let them go home to their families. Their release should not be exalted; it should be expected. It is no great accomplishment of Kim Jong-Un to do this and when the president does it he weakens American foreign policy and puts American citizens at risk around the world.

Look at what the president has said in reaction to Kim Jong-Un, why should they detain American citizens and get a huge pat on the back when they release them? It’s like so many of the president’s foreign policy actions: quick, not thought through, related to show and to ego. When nations, if our adversaries, from Iran to China, nations who already wrongfully hold Americans, think that they can get something – praise, or standing, or even diplomatic concessions – by unlawfully detaining Americans in their countries, you can bet they’ll try it. These are bad people, the leaders of these dictatorships like Iran.

So, I caution the administration. We are all rooting for diplomacy to succeed on the Korean peninsula. But we cannot sacrifice the safety of American citizens around the world in exchange for an illusory veneer of peace. I worry that this president, in his eagerness to strike a deal and get the acclaim and a photo op, will strike a quick one and a bad one. Not a strong one, not a lasting one. President Trump and Secretary Pompeo must seek strong, verifiable, and enduring commitments from North Korea to disarm.

Now, on oil prices and Iran. Earlier this week, the president exited the Iran deal. We all know that. Even as someone who opposed the deal, which I did because I thought it was flawed. I thought if President Obama and Secretary Kerry had waited longer and given the sanctions more time to bite we would have gotten a much better, stronger deal. I still believe that. But once the deal is in place, it seems to me that we should be focused not on undoing this deal. We don’t want a nuclear Iran, it’s one of the reasons I opposed the deal.

But there’s no report from anybody, including our own intelligence, that Iran’s violating that part of the deal. But in the meantime, Iran’s doing some very bad things. They’re not a country that we should admire or respect in any way, the leadership anyway. They are trying to develop an ICBM. They are creating havoc with the Houthis in Yemen and worst of all, in my opinion and greatest immediate danger, there are Iranian revolutionary guard troops in Syria, right near Israel’s border and hundreds if not thousands of rockets, deadly rockets that Iran gives to Hezbollah, a militant terrorist organization. They place them in Lebanon where they have hegemony in certain areas. That’s the greatest danger to Israel, that’s the greatest danger to peace in the Middle East, and down the road, the greatest danger to the United States, at least in the next several years. So, what we should be doing is not undoing this deal right now, but creating new sanctions.

Telling Iran, you continue giving missiles to Hezbollah, you continue sending troops to Iran, you continue your stuff with the Houthis, developing missiles, we’re going to put additional sanctions on you. That to me is the smartest thing to do. The thing that most is in need now given America’s in the world security needs, but we need our allies to do it. Sanctions don’t work, when they’re unilateral. We learned that with South Africa years ago with apartheid.

Only when the sanctions became broad and enacted by many nations do they have an effect. Same thing here. So the United States, by pulling out of the agreement and really getting our European allies noses way out of joint makes it far harder to enact new sanctions on what I perceive to be the greatest dangers we face. There’s one other thing Americans should realize about pulling out of the Iran deal and that is, it affects gasoline prices across the country.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, gas prices will rise over the summer and the average American family can expect to pay $200 more this driving season than last year. The Iran deal is certainly some part of that. For many middle-class families, $200 this summer, that’s more than the tax break that they’ll get, if they get one at all.

When President Trump makes rash decisions without much consideration of the consequences and no coherent strategy, which is what’s happened here in Iran, the American people pay the price in many different ways: security, the declined ability to go after Iran, and money out of their own pocket books with an increase in gasoline prices. One of the ways Americans will pay for President Trump’s unthought-out decision to exit the Iran deal will be at the gas pump this summer. So again, to repeat, I didn’t think the deal was a good deal. Proud I voted no. But at this time and this place for so many reasons, pulling out precipitously without our allies involved, does not achieved any of the goals we need to achieve and hurts Americans in different ways.  

Finally, on prescription drugs. Tomorrow, the president will give a speech on another important topic in American health care: the high cost of prescription drug prices. He’s right to give that speech.

Americans suffer from the highest prescription drug costs in the developed world. On average, Americans pay over $850 a year on prescription drugs compared to an average of $400 across 19 other industrialized nations; remember, that’s on average.

If you’re sick and there’s one specific, new drug on the market for your condition, you could be paying in the tens of thousands per MONTH for that drug. Sometimes that new drug isn’t much different from one already on the market and hasn’t been proven to be any more effective. Sometimes pharmaceutical companies intentionally corner the market on a drug and raise prices by absurd percentages. We saw that with Mr. Shkreli and there’s no cop on the beat to stop the Shkreli’s of the world.

It’s outrageous. It’s venal. It hurts seniors, and the infirm, and regular middle-class families every day. So, we ought to do something about it.

That’s why Democrats made lowering the cost of prescriptions drugs a central pillar of our Better Deal Agenda. We proposed that there should be greater transparency from companies when they are proposing to increase the price of their drugs. We proposed allowing the government to negotiate for lower drug prices, and to establish an office that would go after the most egregious companies and actors that are raising prices of drugs for no reason - a price gouging enforcer.

If we were in the majority, these policies would be one of our top priorities.

Hopefully, President Trump will get on board. In fact, I agree with a lot of what President Trump has already said on the issue. He’s said that drug companies are “getting away with murder” and in his State of the Union Address, he said “one of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs. Prices will come down.”

President Trump’s rhetoric here focuses on a problem that we have to address. We hope, sincerely, that tomorrow he follows through on that rhetoric with a tough and detailed plan to achieve what we both wish to achieve.

So far, President Trump has taken little action to drive down the price of prescription drugs. He installed a former top executive of a pharmaceutical company, Alex Azar, to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services.

And now, six months before the election, without consulting Democrats or Republicans on the Hill, the president will give a speech tomorrow on his plan to bring down the cost of prescription drugs.

We welcome the newfound attention, and we sincerely hope the president outlines a clear, strong plan in detail about how to tackle this incredible problem. Another ‘all hat and no cattle’ speech won’t get the job done. More rhetoric, more half-measures won’t move the needle. We need to finally do something bold and effective to bring down the outrageous cost of prescription drugs. We Democrats have a good, strong proposal. We hope he’ll embrace it.