Thursday, April 21, 2005

Kerry's Senate Floor Statement on the Nuclear Option

John Kerry on Republican Congressional Leadership's Failure To Focus on Real Priorities of the American People

Below are the remarks of Senator John Kerry on the Senate floor this afternoon.

Senator John Kerry Washington's Broken: The Nuclear Option April 21, 2005 Remarks As Prepared for Delivery Senate Floor

Mr. President, the Republican “nuclear option” has been discussed endlessly on editorial pages, talk radio, and in this chamber. This ongoing debate is about much more than Senate procedure. At its core it’s a debate about where we’re headed and what kind of nation we want to become. And beneath it are questions about Washington, which seems headed in a direction that clashes with the will of the American people.

The fact we even are talking about this issue is a stark reminder that Washington is not fighting for the broad interests of the American people. From the outside looking in, our Democracy appears broken - endangered by one party rule intent on amassing power, often at the expense of real work the American people elected us to do.

In recent weeks alone we have witnessed as disturbing a course of events as I have ever seen in this city. Republican leaders of Congress are crossing lines that should never be crossed:

The line that says a leader in the House of Representatives should never carelessly threaten or intimidate federal judges. The line that says the leader of the Senate should never accuse those who disagree with his political tactics of waging a war against people of faith. The line that says respect for core constitutional principles should never be undermined by a political party’s quest for power. Most important of all, the line that says a political party’s leaders should never let their thirst for power overshadow the needs and interests of those who elected them - the American people.

It’s almost hard to believe that in a Congress where leaders of both parties once worked together to find common ground despite ideological differences, we face this moment at all.

Yesterday, when Jim Jeffords announced his retirement, I remembered a very different Washington that Jim’s words captured so eloquently almost four years ago. He spoke of a political tradition where leaders represented their states first. “They spoke their minds,” he said, “often to the dismay of their party leaders…and did their best to guide this city in the direction of our fundamental principles.”

My distinguished colleague, Senator Voinovich, had the courage to respect that tradition earlier this week, but such acts of courage, sadly, are increasingly rare. And I want to talk about this for just a minute. Senator Voinovich is being vilified on talk radio and the Internet for having the audacity to say he wanted more time and more testimony. Senator Voinovich did not say he planned to vote against the president’s nominee; he just said he wants to make an informed decision on a matter of great importance. That doesn’t seem so controversial, but my distinguished colleague, Senator Chafee said he had never seen such an act as Senator Voinovich’s in his four years in Washington.

Before the era of C-SPAN and 24-hour news and the World Wide Web, Senators showed courage and independence all the time. Senators did not think twice about acting on their conscience ahead of partisanship. Today, Senator Voinovich is subjected to widespread denigration in partisan circles, when Americans should really admire and respect his independence.

Open your eyes and look at what’s happening right now in Congress and you're quickly reminded that the people who run Washington have lost touch with the mainstream values and priorities of the American people.

What does it tell you when an embattled House Majority Leader is willing to go on talk radio and attack a Supreme Court Justice, let alone one appointed by Ronald Reagan and confirmed by a nearly unanimous Senate? A justice who ruled in favor of President Bush in Bush v. Gore. Ronald Reagan’s nominee to the highest court in the land can’t even escape Tom DeLay’s partisan assaults, and yet here on the floor of the Senate there’s no outcry - no moderating Republican voice willing to say this shocking attack has no place in our democracy.

I guess none of this should be a surprise - not after we learned what the Majority leader has planned this Sunday. The Majority Leader plans to headline a religious service devoted to defeating, I quote, a “filibuster against people of faith.” When the Leader of the Senate questions the faith of any Senator who opposes his procedural changes to Senate, he goes beyond endangering rules that protect the cherished rights of the minority in our democracy.

Make no mistake: this may be an isolated issue, but the rights of the minority are fundamental to our democracy, and diluting those rights would be a threat to our democracy.

Mr. President, forces outside the mainstream now seem to effortlessly push Republican leaders toward conduct the American people don't want from their elected leaders: Abusing power. Inserting the government into our private lives. Injecting religion into debates about public policy. Jumping through hoops to ingratiate themselves to their party’s base, while step by step, day by day, real problems that keep American families up at night fall by the wayside here in Washington.

Congress, Washington, and our democracy itself are being tested. We each have to ask ourselves, will we let this continue?

Will Republicans in the House continue spending the people’s time defending Tom DeLay, or will they get back to defending America? Will Republican Senators let their silence endorse Senator Frist’s appeal to religious division, or will they put principle ahead of partisanship, refuse to follow him across that line, and instead heal the wounds of this institution and begin addressing the countless challenges facing our nation?

It’s time to come together to fulfill our fundamental obligations to our soldiers and military families, who have sacrificed so much. It’s time to bring down gas prices and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It’s time to find the common ground to cover the 11 million children in this country living without health insurance.

Are we really willing to allow Washington to become a place where they can rewrite the ethics rules to protect Tom DeLay - and then sell out the ethics of the American people by refusing to rewrite the law to provide health care to every child in America?

Are we really willing to allow the Senate to fall in line with the Majority Leader when he invokes faith to rewrite Senate rules to put substandard, extremist judges on the bench?

It’s not up to any one of us to tell another colleague what to believe as a matter of faith.

But I can tell you what I believe: When tens of thousands of innocent souls have perished in Darfur-when 11 million children are without health insurance-when our colossal debt subjects our economic future to the whims of Asian bankers-no one can tell me that faith demands this Senate spend its time arguing over a handful of judges. No one with those priorities can use my faith intimidate me.

It’s time we make it clear that we’re not willing to lay down and put this narrow, stubborn agenda ahead of our families, ahead of our Constitution, and ahead of our values.

The elected leadership in Washington owes the American people better than this. We must hold elected officials accountable and demand that Washington does the people’s business.

What’s at stake is far more than the loss of civility, or the sacrifice of bipartisanship. What’s at stake are our values as a country - like respecting the rights of the minority, separation of church and state, honesty and responsibility.

Every one of us knows there’s no crisis in confirming judicial nominations when over 90% of the president’s nominees have already been confirmed.

No, what’s at stake is something far greater - a struggle between a great political tradition in the United States that seeks common ground so we can do the common good - and a new ethic that, on any given issue, will use any means to justify the end of absolute victory over whatever and whoever stands in the way.

A new view that says if you don’t like the facts, just change them; if you can’t win playing by the rules, just rewrite them. A new view that says if you can’t win a debate on the strength of your argument, demonize your opponents. A new view that says it’s ok to ignore the overwhelming public interest as long as you can get away with it.

For what? For a so-called ‘nuclear option’ that seeks to put extreme, substandard judges on the federal bench against the will of the American people.

Why? Is it worth undermining our democracy on behalf of Priscilla Owens, who took contributions from Enron and Halliburton and ruled in their favor? Is it worth this distraction from the people’s business to confirm Charles Pickering, who fought against implementing the Voting Rights Act and manipulated the judicial system to reduce the sentence of a convicted cross-burner? Is it worth throwing out 200 years of Senate tradition to defend William Myers, Janice Rogers Brown and Bill Pryor, whom numerous members of the impartial American Bar Association deemed unqualified?

Mr. President, the fact that we even have to debate a nuclear option over these judges tells you this is all about one party rule and its quest for unchallenged power. It’s time to put Americans back in control of their own lives - and put Washington back on their side. It’s time get Washington under control, and that starts by restoring some accountability.

Accountability for all the false promises - like the failure to move toward energy independence. The truth is we’re more dependent on foreign oil than ever before, and Americans are suffering, paying $2.35 a gallon.

Accountability for breaking faith with military families, who unnecessarily struggle to pay the bills and deal with lost benefits when loved ones are called to duty.

Accountability for the fiscal insanity, for the record deficits, for the mounting debts that cede dangerous amount of control over America’s economic future to central bankers in Asia and oil cartels in the Middle East. That’s a debate we owe the American people.

Accountability for the 44 million Americans without health care, and middle class Americans one doctor’s bill away from bankruptcy, and especially the eleven million children - sons and daughters of working parents - without any health care at all.

That’s what the American people are willing to see Washington debate with passion. People are tired of politicians passionately seeking power and not much else. Americans sent us here to struggle with important questions - like how we make our great country stronger, or how we bring Americans together around our shared values without driving Americans farther apart.

We continue to witness a sad decline in the quality of our debate and a coarsening of dialogue in American politics. It’s not what our Founding Fathers envisioned, but, worse than that, it’s not what the American people expect of their leaders. We need to change it. We must at long last begin restoring what the American people want and haven’t had for far too long - a Washington that works for them.

Join the discussion of Kerry's Senate activities, and video message, at Light Up The Darkness


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