Statement of Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy on the FY 2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bills and COVID Relief Package

After months of delay and painstaking negotiation, this afternoon we will have before us a spending package that includes all 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2021, and a vitally important COVID relief package.  It provides funding for programs that are critically important to the American people, and I urge its swift passage.  We are already 2 months and 20 days into the fiscal year.  We cannot delay further.

As Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, I worked hard to reach agreement on this omnibus appropriations bill that will fund the federal government through the remainder of the fiscal year, without relying on a long-term continuing resolution. This was no easy task. 

The budget caps were very lean this year, providing a less than one percent increase in non-defense discretionary spending to meet the needs of a nation reeling from the worst public health pandemic in a century.  This would have been difficult under ordinary circumstances, but was made even more difficult given the global health and economic crisis we face.  Yet, within this tight topline, we have produced a bill that provides important increases in programs that serve the American people and invest in our economy.    

Importantly, this bill drives the final stake through the heart of the Trump Administration’s effort to substantially diminish the role of government in helping Americans in need and promoting economic growth.

President Trump’s first budget proposed to substantially diminish the role of government, proposing to cut non-defense spending by 9 percent in fiscal year 2018, and 18 percent by 2021.  He proposed to completely eliminate programs millions of Americans rely on every day, such as Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP), Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), HOME, Legal Services Corporation, Food for Peace, Community Services Block Grant, and Community Development Banks.  He proposed deep cuts for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), environmental programs, nutrition programs, rental assistance, and foreign assistance.  Notwithstanding the President’s promises to invest in infrastructure, he proposed deep cuts in transit, Amtrak, Essential Air Service, and Clean and Safe Drinking Water grants.  For four years, Congress, on a bipartisan basis, rightly rejected these ill-conceived, arbitrary, and reckless cuts.  And this year we do the same. 

This agreement is the product of weeks of hard work and compromise.  This is not the bill I would have written on my own.  It includes things I support and things I oppose.  But on balance, passage of this bill is unquestionably in the interest of the American people.

The omnibus spending bill includes increases for education and early childhood programs.  It provides more funding for substance abuse and mental health services, services that are of the utmost importance in these extremely difficult times.  It provides more for food assistance programs both at home and abroad, assistance that is desperately needed as many families struggle to survive during this pandemic.  And it includes increases for housing and homelessness services to help those who are the most vulnerable.  These are all programs that Democrats fought hard to include.

Every member in this chamber has something in this omnibus that they can take home to their constituents.  Vermonters can be proud of what is in this package, too.  At long last, this bill will expand access to critical broadband funding for Vermont, which, since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed in 2009, has been unable to tap critical federal resources to help bring reliable Internet access to the entire State.  Never more than now has the lack of reliable, high-speed Internet been felt more starkly in the rural corners of Vermont. 

There’s much more.  Like other industries, the dairy industry across the country is struggling.  This bill makes many investments in dairy innovation centers, one of which is established in Vermont, to improve the economic viability and resilience of dairy producers.  It invests in the continued cleanup of Lake Champlain, the crown jewel of Vermont.  It supports the Northern Border Regional Commission, which spurs economic development and job creation, and, thanks to dedicated funding, this year, will support broadband initiatives in Vermont, and neighboring New York, New Hampshire and Maine.  And we continue to provide the tools needed by so many communities in Vermont and across the nation as they grapple with a worsening opioid epidemic and record fatal drug overdoses.  These are just a few of the important federal programs included in the omnibus spending bill that will support Vermont, our economy, and our communities.

While I support this agreement, I am deeply disappointed that the Congress is so unforgivably late in completing our work.  There is absolutely no reason why this bill could not have been finished months ago. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee failed to mark up a single Appropriations bill this year, and the Senate never considered a single appropriations bill on the floor.  This is unacceptable.  Members of this body want and deserve a voice in what goes into these bills on behalf of their constituents and we must give them that opportunity.  We must do better in the 117th Congress. 

I thank Chairman Shelby, Chairwoman Lowey, and Ranking Member Granger for their cooperation and partnership as we worked through our differences on the omnibus spending bill, and I urge all members to support it.  

Also before us today is a much-delayed COVID relief package.  It, too, is the product of bipartisan compromise, and while it falls short in some critical areas, I support the agreement. 

This package is also long overdue.  The American people have been waiting for help for far too long as the Republican leadership took a “wait and see” approach.  For 270 days, Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans have blocked every reasonable attempt to provide desperately needed relief.  Instead, they focused their time and energy on packing the Federal courts with far-right extremist judges.  In the meantime, millions of American families have suffered needlessly. 

This package is far from perfect, but time is not on our side and we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

This bill provides much-needed investments in our economy with support for small businesses.  It provides relief for unemployed workers by extending unemployment benefits into March.  It makes investments in vaccine production and distribution.  It supports health providers, educators, farmers and transportation providers.  It provides critical investments to expand broadband in rural and low-income areas, access which is vitally important in these difficult times when many schools and businesses are only operating remotely.  It also includes another round of direct payments to millions of Americans still struggling to pay their mortgage or rent, feed their families, heat their homes, and meet their monthly obligations. 

At my urging this bill also includes $4 billion in emergency funding for The GAVI Alliance, for the procurement and delivery of vaccines to countries around the world whose rudimentary public health systems are being overwhelmed by COVID-19, and whose economies are in free fall due to the virus.  Global health experts say more is needed, but this is a welcome and good first step.  This significant infusion of funds will enable GAVI to immediately begin ratcheting up its response in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  We cannot defeat this global pandemic, and international travel and commerce will not recover, without fighting the virus overseas.  Millions of Americans are living, traveling, and working abroad.  If the virus is spreading anywhere, it threatens people everywhere.   

I support this package.  But let me be clear – this COVID bill is only a first step.  We must do more.  Vermonters, and the American people, need more.  

The direct payments included in this package are but a fraction of what we should have provided given the dire financial situation of millions of people across this nation.  People are hungry.  Unemployment continues to plague our economies.  Families are struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table.  I will continue to fight for more.  

State and local governments have laid off over 1.3 million teachers, first responders and other employees since March.  They need our help.  Tragically, rates of spousal abuse and child abuse have increased during the crisis and we should be providing funds for Violence Against Women Act and child abuse prevention grants.  Vermonters are facing the coldest, darkest months of winter and are struggling to heat their homes, and families need help paying their utility bills through the LIHEAP program. 

We are making progress in delivering a vaccine to the American people, but this pandemic is far from over.  I will be the first at the negotiating table to work with President Biden in the 117th Congress to address the many needs that remain unmet in this bill.

I urge all members of this chamber to vote “aye” when the bill comes over from the house today.  And I yield the floor. 

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