Transcript: Senate Democrats’ press conference on the budget deal

Partial transcript of press briefing remarks by Senators Harry Reid (D-Nevada), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Chuck Schumer (D-New York), and Patty Murray (D-Washington) on the passage of the bipartisan budget compromise, H.J. Res 59. The press briefing was held on Dec. 19, 2013.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada):
It’s been a very eventful fall to say the least but the highlight, at least for me, was the delicately crafted budget compromise led by Sen. Murray. It’s a step in the right direction – one of the first steps we’ve had in the right direction for some time. It moves us away from the lurches we’ve had to face from crisis to crisis and puts us on a path restoring regular order in the Senate.

The economy, based on what Chairman Bernanke said yesterday and we can see it all over, is picking up. Is it as good as we’d like? Of course not.

But this agreement helps provide the certainty it needs to continue the growth.

But for far too many Americans, as you can see on this chart, the headlines about positive economic news doesn’t match the reality of their lives. Even as the economy creates jobs, too many Americans find themselves on the sidelines, watching as the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle-class getting squeezed and squeezed.

There is no greater challenge this country has than income inequality, and we must do something about it. There are lots of things that should be done but the first thing is to make sure that those people who are waiting and waiting to find a job still get their important check that they deserve.

Unemployment compensation is something that is good for the economy. Mark Zandi has said that for every dollar that we spend on unemployment insurance, we have a return of 50% growth in our economy. This has been an issue in the past we’ve agreed on, but not now.

I am very, very pleased, happy and proud of my colleague, Sen. [Dean] Heller, who joined with Sen. [Jack] Reed of Rhode Island, to introduce a three-month extension of unemployment insurance. That’s the way we used to do things around here.

It’s a good bill and it deserves a vote, and I hope my Republican colleagues will work with us to schedule a vote in a very timely fashion, which to this point, they haven’t. We’ve come to the floor. We’ve had other various people ask us unanimous consent to be able to move to it, and the answer’s no. They blocked us from scheduling a vote at the end of this week. And as I’ve indicated before, if necessary, I’m going to file cloture on our way out of here and it’ll be the first vote we have when we get back.

I hope we can get cooperation and set up vote before we leave. But if not, we’re going to vote no later than Jan. 6th or 7th. This bill is the right thing to do for hardworking Americans who are looking for a job.

Long-term unemployment rate is twice as high now as it was last time the unemployment emergency benefits were allowed to expire.

I repeat what Mark Zandi said. Remember, Mark Zandi was John McCain’s financial advisor when John ran for President, and he said every penny we spend on unemployment insurance yields a return of more than 50% in economic growth. This is just the first step.

We need to raise the minimum wage. We need to take other measures that will help address income inequality in this country. We have income inequality but unemployment insurance is an important step. In the days ahead, I hope we find common ground and deliver the results to the American people that we used to do on a bipartisan basis and do it very quickly.

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Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
…In a very brief period of time, one man has made a very profound impact on the world. That person is Pope Francis, who was recently named Time’s Man of the Year. The statement he recently made about income inequality was not just a message to America but a message to the world. Yet, those of us in America should pay heed. He warned that income inequality leads to in his words “an economy of exclusion and inequality and a globalization of indifference.”

He challenges all of us – and he particularly challenges those of us who have been blessed with an opportunity to serve in public life and in United States Senate – he challenges us to acknowledge the obvious: There are people who got up and went to work today and will go to work tomorrow and will work every single day very hard and despite their best efforts, they’re not making enough money to live to the next paycheck. They’re below the level of poverty in America. That is unacceptable.

It’s been years since we’ve raised the minimum wage. Americans know this intuitively regardless of political party that we’ve got to give these working families a fighting chance to survive. And that means when we come back here to make raising the minimum wage in America a high priority in the United States Senate and I hope in the House of Representatives as well.

This issue of unemployment benefits means that about 1.3 million Americans are going to see their benefits cut. 63,000 in my home of state of Illinois. For many of these people, unemployment benefits are their only source of income. It may mean the difference of whether they’re homeless or have a place to live.

Including workers’ families, nearly 69 million people – including 17 million children – are supported by extended unemployment insurance benefits. If we really care about working families and those who are on their way back to work, we’ve got to extend these unemployment benefits.

And the last point I want to make, if we’re sensitive to the needs of working families, we cannot ignore the burden many of these families face because of student loan debt. I just completed a press conference this morning with Elizabeth Warren and Jack Reed, Barbara Boxer is joining us in this effort. It is time for us to tackle head-on this unfair treatment of students and their families across America and the economic burden it creates for them and the drag it creates on our economy.

When we return next year, we need to make working families our highest priority.

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Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York):
Well, there’s no doubt this has been a tough year in Washington. Everything we’ve seen shows it. But the budget agreement that passed the House and Senate – with Sen. Murray’s leadership – offers a ray of hope.

With passage of the budget and Speaker Boehner’s recent and refreshing rebuke of the hard right, there are positives signs that Democrats and Republicans can come together to solve the problems facing the middle class.

We’ve a lot more work to do. But the first thing we need to do when we return is extend unemployment insurance for the millions of Americans who stand to lose them in the coming year.

Our economy is making gains, yes, but over 4 million people are long-term unemployed in this country. Look at that over there and you can see it at that chart.

We have a lot more work to do. The extension of unemployment benefits will be the next test in the fight between the hard right and the mainstream conservatives in the Republican Party. They should be aware the tectonic plates of our politics are changing because the declines in middle-class income and the difficulty in average people getting good-paying jobs has overtaken the deficit as the number one problem facing our political economy today.

Our Republican colleagues should take note – certainly we’re going to build on the progress we’ve made to reduce the deficit, but it is no longer the most important issue that we face. The American people overwhelmingly agree with that. Issues like job creation, minimum wage, and unemployment insurance are going to weigh on the minds of voters far more than Obamacare by the time the 2014 elections roll around.

On minimum wage, it’s unconscionable that somebody can work 40 hours struggle and not be able to provide a life of dignity for their families.

On unemployment insurance, people knocking on doors as they’re required to do by law to try to find a job should be cut off after 26 weeks.

Now, Republicans have worked with us to extend unemployment benefits before and they need to do it again. Republicans have worked with us to raise the minimum wage before; they need to do it again.

Just an example: When President Bush signed the latest round of emergency unemployment benefits into law, the unemployment rate was 5.6% – that’s a 1.5% lower than it is now. And that was signed and pushed forward by President Bush. And now it’s 7%, they can’t do it? Well, they better smell the coffee. The world is changing. The 2010 elections don’t govern any longer.

If Republicans could find the will to extend unemployment benefits when it was 5.6%, they can certainly find the will to do it now.

And so our Republican colleagues are going to have to make a choice and they’re going to have to make it very soon: Will they bend once again to the extreme right and leave millions of Americans who are struggling out in the cold? If they do, they will find it’s to their political detriment and more importantly to the detriment of average people in this country. Or they seize on the recent bipartisan momentum and join with Democrats to provide a much-needed boost to our economy? I’m hopeful there’s a breath of fresh air in the capital, a new breath and it will mean we can find common ground and provide this much-needed economic relief.

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Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington):
Well, I think we can all agree that we took a very important step forward this week. In reaching a bipartisan budget agreement for the next two years, we did a number of things that really bode well for the coming year and for our ability to address jobs and the economy as we now go forward.

First of all, we showed the American people that members of Congress can work together, that we can listen to each other and get into a room and talk frankly without trying to hurt each other politically.

Secondly, by breaking through the partisanship, we finally ended the seemingly never-ending cycle of lurching from one crisis to the next.

Third, we showed compromise is not a dirty word and there is a big coalition at the center that is ready to make some sacrifices politically to get things done.

And finally and importantly, for our efforts to continue to grow our economy, we gave American families and businesses the certainty they need to grow.

Of course, there’s a lot more to do. We are heartened by headlines that predict a strong economy next year but we understand just how fragile our economic recovery still is with millions of Americans still out of work.

Now is the time to redouble our efforts, not shrink from the challenges we face. Because all the economic predictions in the world mean nothing if we don’t continue to support policies that help our middle-class. And that work absolutely starts with extending unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans who will lose their benefits in the coming months. Because not only will these families lose benefits, but the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has said that our economy will lose over 200,000 jobs if we do not extend these benefits. This is simply the right thing to do at a time when millions of American families continue to teeter on the brink in states where unemployment remains stubbornly high.

I know that there are already small signs of bipartisan cooperation around this effort, and that’s an encouraging signal as we head into the holiday season and the next session of this Congress.

My hope is that the next session will be squarely focused on improving the economy for middle-class Americans.

Rolling back $60 billion in sequester cuts in the deal that we passed yesterday was a great step. Ending the threat of a shutdown was a great step.

But increasing the minimum wage and extending unemployment [benefits] is right around the corner and I hope to live up to that.

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