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Surface Transportation Act

Sen. Harry Reid

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Mr. President, what we have just gone through is an effort to bring the highway bill to be closer to the end.

The amendment I have offered does not have in it the Commerce Committee-reported matter. There has been an effort made by members of the Commerce Committee on a bipartisan basis to have another proposal, and that is what is now in this bill. I would hope that will be accepted--I am told it will--when we get back, which will allow us to start legislating, the Monday we get back, on this bill. We have to move to completion.

As I said earlier today, I don't like a lot of the amendments my Republican colleagues have offered, but they have a right to offer amendments. We are going to have to work through these amendments. I hope we can come up with, the day we get back or at least the next day, a list of finite amendments, Republican amendments and Democratic amendments, and work our way through those. We can't have hundreds of amendments, and I hope we can work that down to a reasonable number. Both sides are going to offer amendments. I am sure it won't be a lot of fun, but that is why we are elected--to make tough decisions.

There are some measures we have to vote on that relate to the bill. I know that may sound a little unusual, but there may be some amendments that are germane or relevant to the matter we are considering. We are going to work through those.

I hope we don't have to file cloture on the bill--that would be nice--because this legislation is important because the surface transportation law that is now in effect expires at the end of March. So we have a lot of work to do in a short period of time.

So Senators understand, we have a lot more to do. We not only have to finish this bill, but it is imperative that we bring to the floor the postal reform legislation. It is extremely important. We also have a lot of nominations we are going to have to deal with, and these are the things we have in the short term. The highway bill and the postal bill are really big, important pieces of legislation.

I would be happy to yield to my friend, the chairwoman of the committee.

The Senator from California.

Sen. Barbara Boxer

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Very briefly, I just want to thank my friend so much. He has a lot of ties to the environment and public works community, and we know every State in the Union is watching us. They want to know that we are going to get our job done on the highway bill. I see Senator Thune is on the floor. He has been extraordinarily helpful as we have worked our way through this in the most bipartisan fashion.

For people who might be confused with the vote that took place, I just wanted to point out that in the package that was on the floor, what happened was there was a problem in the Commerce Committee. There was a bipartisan problem there which has now been worked out.

So what my colleague has done now is--I ask unanimous consent that I can control the floor for the next 5 minutes.

Is there objection?

Without objection, it is so ordered.

Sen. Barbara Boxer

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So what my colleague has done by offering this amendment is to offer now the agreed-upon Commerce package and the agreed-upon bill so that we can finally get started and not have us torn asunder.

It was wonderful to interact with Senator Hutchison today because she made her point that she is quite satisfied with the compromise that has been worked out between herself and Senator Rockefeller on the new compromised Commerce piece.

So when we come back, here is where we will be: Senator Reid has offered that new package, which is 100 percent bipartisan. I have talked with Senator Inhofe. His staff and my staff are going to be working literally--I don't want to say 24/7; that is an exaggeration, but they are going to be working every day, including the weekends, over this work period to take probably 200 amendments--that is usually what happens in these bills--and try to get a few that are simple, that are not controversial, get those agreed upon on a staff level, and bring them back to a lot of principals. We have a lot of principals in this because we have four committees--all working in good faith, I might add.

So I am excited. I know Senator Landrieu is on the Senate floor, and she has been doing a wonderful job with Senator Nelson, Senator Shelby, Senator Wicker, Senator Carper, and others, on a bipartisan basis on the RESTORE Act. It is an amendment that has been filed, and I am very hopeful that is the type of thing we can get done with good will here, people willing to not filibuster but agree to 60-vote thresholds, if they have to, with time agreements.

Here is the deal, and I will close. Senator Reid was exactly right. If we don't do this bill, our entire transportation program expires at the end of March. That is 1.8 million jobs directly impacted by this bill. In the bipartisan bill we have worked out, we not only protect those jobs, but we create up to 1 million new jobs because we have added a very important piece, the TIFIA piece. So we have made that a major program which has cost very little because the way money is leveraged, it will leverage local funds, State funds, private funds. That means we could see up to 1 million new jobs.

As we leave here today, the good news is that we have made sure that millions of working Americans will be able to count on the payroll tax cut. That is good. We make sure that so many of our unemployed workers can know they will continue to receive unemployment and that our senior citizens know their doctors will not run away from them when they come in with their Medicare card. We have done a good thing on that.

There are things in that bill I don't like. Certainly it was a compromise. We met each other halfway. In the highway bill, we have done that as well. So I am ever so grateful to the leadership in the Senate because they could easily have said: Well, we had a cloture vote, and it went down. Let's forget the bill.

But we are all working together. We knew we had to take this step to get to the next step. So we are at that step. We will come back, and we will begin in earnest to dispose of amendments. I hope we will have a list from the staff of maybe 15, 20 amendments that are not controversial that we can move forward on and then get to some of the difficult issues.

In closing, I urge my colleagues on both side of the aisle--why do we need to have a birth control amendment on a highway bill? Why do we have to have foreign relations amendments? I serve on that committee, Foreign Relations, and I am proud of it, but we shouldn't be bringing controversial, unrelated amendments to the highway bill because 2.8 million jobs are hanging in the balance.

But I leave here with great optimism. A couple of days ago I said I didn't see a path forward for the highway bill and the transit bill. Today I see a very clear path forward. If we all continue to work together, we are going to be proud and we are going to make everyone, from the Chamber of Commerce to the AFL CIO and every group in between that has joined in a coalition of 1,000 organizations--they are going to be happy, and, most of all, the American people will be happy, because we have to fix those bridges and those highways, and we have to make sure our people have alternatives so they can get into transit.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.

The Senator from Hawaii.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka

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Mr. President, I reluctantly supported the conference agreement because it is absolutely essential that we extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance benefits. The stakes are too high to do otherwise for our economic recovery and for millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet. We cannot abandon them or reverse progress during this difficult time.

However, I strongly oppose the decision to pick the pockets of Federal workers yet again just to offset the cost of 10 months of unemployment insurance benefits. I am not opposed to offsetting the costs, but I believe shared sacrifice is essential and a simple matter of fairness and decency. Unfortunately, once again, rather than asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share of taxes, some of my colleagues insisted on taxing America's dedicated middle-class public servants.

Future Federal employees will be required to pay an additional 2.3 percent of their income toward their pensions. That means most employees will pay a total of 3.1 percent of their salaries, and that is in addition to the 6.2 percent they pay for Social Security retirement benefits. This agreement effectively lowers the Federal pay scale by 2.3 percent going forward, and this comes after Federal wages already have been frozen for 2 years. Under this agreement, future congressional employees--all of our staffs, who often work long hours for us and are underpaid--will pay more toward their pensions at the same time as we cut their pension benefits by more than one-third. These are permanent changes made to fund just 10 months of unemployment benefits--not a good investment in our Nation's future.

Some of my colleagues would have you believe that Federal employees are overpaid, and that simply is not true. In many critical fields, the Federal Government struggles to compete with the private sector to recruit and retain the skilled people our Nation needs: experts in cyber security and intelligence analysis, doctors and nurses to care for our wounded warriors, accountants who protect taxpayers during billion-dollar defense acquisitions. These are just a few examples. Federal employees handle incredibly complex work. On paper, an analyst might compare the salary of a nuclear submarine mechanic to a car mechanic. We all depend on the important work car mechanics do, but clearly we used to recruit the most sought-after mechanics possible to be our nuclear sub mechanics, and we need to pay them enough to retain them. As the income gap in this country widens and so many hard-working Americans face increasing economic insecurity, I am proud that the Federal Government still pays most employees a living wage.

Many private sector employers are scaling back or eliminating pensions. Just this week, General Motors announced plans to suspend pension benefits for nearly 20,000 employees who have been with the company for more than 10 years. Long term, this unfortunate trend will rob millions of Americans who have worked hard all their lives of the security retirement they earned and deserve. This trend, tragically, is bound to increase poverty among senior citizens in the coming years.

Some of my colleagues want to follow the private sector and eliminate or dramatically reduce the Federal pension.

Today, this conference agreement will, unfortunately, take the first step in that direction. But I call on my colleagues to prevent the Federal Government from joining this race to the bottom. I fear this shortsighted attack on Federal workers will repeat itself. Every time we need an offset to fund anything, I expect there will be another proposal to cut Federal pay, pensions or other benefits. We must stop and help to protect our Federal workers.

I yield the floor.

The Senator from Massachusetts.