REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT,
THE VICE PRESIDENT,
SENATOR TOM DASCHLE, AND REPRESENTATIVE DICK GEPHARDT
AT UNITY MESSAGE EVENT
Library of Congress
REPRESENTATIVE GEPHARDT: Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, and members of the House and Senate, I would like to call this joint caucus of House and Senate Democrats to order.
Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, welcome. We are at a point in our history that comes possibly once or twice in everyone's life. It's a point where leaders are faced with the opportunity to make a decision that will echo a generation into the future and will help decide what kind of world we will leave to our children and our grandchildren.
We are faced with a great challenge. It is a challenge of whether we do the right thing for our country and choose the long-term over the short-term. It is a challenge of whether we can rise to the occasion and make the choices for our future that will leave a strong legacy to those who will bear the mantle of leadership in the next century. It is a challenge that I am confident that we will meet.
We have seen firsthand what fiscal responsibility can bring to our country and our economy. We are currently enjoying the harvest of the seeds we planted in 1993, when Democrats, without a single Republican vote, made the difficult and courageous choice to put our long-term interests of the United States of America ahead of short-term politics. (Applause.)
We took a step in 1993 that has led to the brightest economic outlook in a generation; perhaps even in our lifetimes. In fact, we have the best combination of high growth and low inflation since a fellow Missourian, one of my heroes, Harry Truman, was in the White House.
In 1993, Democrats didn't pass the buck. We bucked the conventional Republican wisdom, and we should be proud of what we helped create in 1993. (Applause.)
This year, as we look over the horizon to the faint glimmer of a new century, we face yet another challenge. We have to decide as a nation whether we will plant the seeds of growth that will continue into the next century. As Democrats, we are united by our desire to live up to that great challenge. We want to invest this surplus, a surplus borne of the hard work and labor of America's working families. We want to make sure that future retirees will be relieved of a crushing debt burden that nearly buried our economy alive. We want to make sure that interest rates remain low for the next generation, so that entrepreneurship and home ownership will continue to flourish. We want nothing less than to pass on the American Dream to a new generation -- no less than what our parents gave to us.
And we want to help address the challenges that face working families on a daily basis. We want to help lift the burdens that make raising their children in the '90s so difficult and stressful. We want to enact a strong patients' bill of rights to ensure that families -- (applause) -- a strong patients' bill of rights to ensure that families get the health care they pay for and that they deserve. When a crisis strikes, you want health care and you want it to be there, and you want it to work. Every American should have that right.
These rights must be strong and they must be enforceable, and they must be real. And Democrats will be fighting to pass a bill that will do that job. (Applause.)
We want to increase income security for hard-working families. Even though the national bank account continues to improve, too many families still live paycheck to paycheck. We will work to increase the minimum wage so that the hardest working Americans at the bottom of the ladder have a firm grip up into the middle class. (Applause.)
And we'll also strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws, so that mothers get the pay they deserve and the support they need for their families. This is a world where most families depend on two wage earners. Equal pay for equal work is not a luxury, it's a necessity. And we're going to make sure it becomes a reality. (Applause.)
So, my friends, we have a lot to accomplish. This is an ambitious agenda, and we can't do it alone. In these next two years we want to join with Republicans to pass legislation that makes a difference in the lives of working families, and to deliver the help that they've been waiting for. We want to make progress now, this month, this year, this session. We can't afford to waste another year or two, mired in partisan wrangling and gridlock. If you're depending on your health insurance, this year you want it to be there. If you're working on the minimum wage, you need a living wage now.
We can work together. It's what the American people want; it's what they expect. And it's within our grasp if we put the national interest above partisanship. We will be judged by our progress, our action, our accomplishment -- not by our words. We can take advantage of this opportunity to rise above the past and invest in our future to create a new century of prosperity and security for all of our people.
On behalf of all Democrats I'd like to thank the three individuals who are here to join with us today in talking about real issues and real-life challenges. They're here to tell us about how Democrats have helped to make a real difference in the lives of people all over this country, and how we can still do more to make sure that the next century is truly the best century. They're here to inspire us about the success that Americans continue to achieve, and to raise our vision towards the possibilities that remain for this great nation. And they're here to point the way towards the future.
That's how all of us here today have worked to build this agenda. We have listened, all of our members -- House Democrats, Senate Democrats -- have been out in these last months really listening, actively listening to the people -- to their hopes, their dreams. And we have heard their call. We have always been the party of the people. And that is why we have three citizens here today to talk about their agenda and our agenda.
Their eloquence and spirit reflects the soul of this great nation. It's important for all of us to listen and be guided by them, first and foremost.
Our first guest is Maureen Marshall, a teacher at Springfield Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia. She has been teaching for eight years, working with 5th and 6th graders, and also teaching special education classes. She's here to tell us about the importance of small class size in the early grades and how it makes such a critical impact in children's lives.
Our second guest is Edwin Bobeale, a 4th generation graduate of Tuskegee. Pell grants helped him earn a bachelor's and master's degree and pursue his career with a chemical company in Delaware. He's here to talk about the importance of keeping up a strong federal role in supporting higher education of our young people.
And our last guest is Michael Saylor, founder, president and CEO of a company called MicroStrategy. Michael will talk about the economy and how the economy has helped his company and many others flourish, and why it's important to reduce the debt to keep our economy strong in the future.
Now it's my pleasure to present Ms. Marshall. Give her a great big Democratic welcome. (Applause.)
SENATOR DASCHLE: Edwin, Maureen and Michael, on behalf of the House and Senate Democratic Caucuses, we thank you for being here this morning. You are American success stories personified. (Applause.) Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, we are honored and very delighted with your presence with us this morning.
Before I begin a few comments, let me salute my partner in the House of Representatives -- I could not have a more courageous, a more eloquent, a more powerful leader than I have in the next Speaker of the House, Dick Gephardt. (Applause.)
This is truly a united Democratic Party that stands here today. I also want to acknowledge the tremendous work of White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, he's as good as they come, and he's here, as well. (Applause.)
Mr. President, as others have already said this morning, six years ago with your leadership we made a decision to do the right thing for America. We passed a plan to balance the federal budget. And, today, as our three guests attest, this nation is reaping the benefits. America is working again. And after years of postponing our hopes and aspirations, Americans are again filled with hope and renewed optimism.
We've gone from the largest deficit in our nation's history to the largest surplus. We now have the best opportunity in our lifetime to deal with some of the biggest social and economic challenges on our horizon. We cannot squander this opportunity, and today Democrats stand united to say we will not. (Applause).
Putting families first means Social Security and Medicare first. We support your plan to invest 62 percent of the surplus in Social Security, and another 15 percent in Medicare, Mr. President. Social Security and Medicare are two of our most sacred commitments to America. It is our responsibility now to ensure that this country respects those commitments, and we will do so. (Applause.)
We need to make sure Social Security and Medicare will be there -- for our parents and for our children. Investing 77 percent of the surplus in Social Security and Medicare will enable us to do that. It will allow us to pay down the debt, to save hundreds of billions of dollars in interest payments, and keep the interest low for those mortgages and college loans that every working American pays.
But Americans understand that there are differences among us in Congress -- those differences between Republicans and Democrats. And Republicans have already articulated a different plan. They say they'd like to set aside 62 percent of the surplus for Social Security, but their plan today doesn't include a nickel for Medicare. After the 62 percent, they'll use what's left of the surplus for a tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthiest Americans.
We've analyzed that plan. We now know that people who make $800,000 a year will save $20,000 a year in taxes. But families who earn $38,000 or less a year -- 60 percent of all American families -- will save 27 cents a day. You can't achieve big dreams with small change.
We believe America's families deserve better than 27 cents a day. They deserve good schools for their children. If they're sick, they deserve whatever treatment their doctor says they need, not however little their HMO is willing to pay.
Democrats have always believed that if you work hard all your life you ought to be able to retire with dignity and security. You shouldn't have to fear that growing old means becoming a burden on your children or anyone else. That is why we fought to create Social Security and Medicare in the first place. That's why we fought over and over and over to protect them.
I talk to people in South Dakota who tell me they're worried that they don't have the luxury -- the luxury -- of retiring. Well, Democrats believe we don't have the luxury of ignoring the coming retirement crisis either, and we will not do that. (Applause.)
We need to strengthen America's retirement security and we're committed to doing that this year. People between the ages of 55 and 65, who don't have the access to a group health insurance plan or who lose their insurance when they're laid off or their plant closes, ought to be able to buy into Medicare, and we want to make that happen. (Applause.)
Early retirees, who were promised health benefits that are canceled, ought to be able to buy into their former employer's group health plan, too. People between 55 and 65 are twice as likely as someone just 10 years younger to experience major health problems; they have less access to health coverage and they're at a greater risk of losing their health coverage. And they're the fastest-growing age group in America today. Over the next 10 years they will increase by 60 percent. We need to close this gap now, before it gets any worse.
We must help families cope with the emotional and financial strain of caring for the elderly, the ill and disabled in their family. And one good way to do it is to do what the Democratic agenda calls for, with a $1,000 a year long-term tax credit to reduce the cost of long-term care. It's time we passed that legislation, this year, in 1999. (Applause.)
Care-giving is a hard job. Two-thirds of all family caregivers today have to cut back their hours or take unpaid leave from work. The value of the care they provide is worth billions of dollars. A $1,000 tax credit is the least they deserve, and it's the right kind of tax cut for America's families.
We must increase the number of Americans with private pensions, and get rid of the inequities in the pension system that leave so many elderly living at near poverty. Our agenda will help -- by making it easier for small businesses to start pension plans, and for employees to contribute to them. We'll also invest 12 percent of the surplus in USA accounts to enable working families to save for their own retirement in private accounts.
And finally, we need tougher penalties for criminals who use telemarketing fraud and other schemes to take advantage of older Americans. We will not let the generation that saved democracy lose their life savings to swindlers. That will not happen if we have anything to say about it. (Applause.)
We've come a long way in six years. America is working again. We're daring to dream again. We have the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to make those dreams come true. Democrats are determined, and we are unified. America's families need us, and want us, to enact this agenda, to seize this opportunity now.
It is now my great pleasure, and high personal honor, to recognize and to introduce, the President of the United States Senate, Al Gore -- our friend, Al Gore. (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues. And, Tom, thank you -- you have a way with a line -- (laughter) -- the timing and rhythm were impressive.
Let me begin by expressing my sincere and hardy thanks to Tom Daschle for not only his friendship to me and to all of us here, but for his truly extraordinary efforts as the Senate Democratic leader. I don't know when we have ever had in the United States Senate a Democratic leader who has been able to put together the kind of unity, the kind of ideas, the kind of agenda that Tom Daschle has formed. Every day he fights for what's right for the families of South Dakota and for the United States of America. We are very lucky to have such a great Democratic leader in Tom Daschle. Thank you, Tom. (Applause.)
I was trying to figure out a way to pause and work in the word "majority" in just the right way there, but we're working on that right now. (Laughter.)
And let me also say a word of special thanks felt I know in the hearts of every person here to Dick Gephardt for his remarkable leadership of the House Democratic Caucus and for his remarkable articulation of Democratic values and ideals all across this country. No one has worked harder to keep our party and our whole country focused on the issues that really matter to working families -- a strong economy, a world-class education, a nation with healthy families and livable communities where every child has a chance to live out his or her dream.
Dick is a wonderful friend to all of us here. He is a special friend to me, and he is a great, great Democratic leader and the next Speaker of the House of Representatives. (Applause.)
I, too, want to thank Maureen Marshall and Edwin Bobeale and Michael Saylor for their wonderful statements and the way they embody in their lives the stories of the lives of so many millions of Americans -- stories that are connected to this agenda for 1999 that we're talking about here today.
I, too, want to thank my partner in the White House, John Podesta, who does such a great job, and also his whole team in the White House. He's got a terrific team of men and women, and I want to single out Larry Stein, who is the Congressional Liaison, House and Senate, and the others who are here.
And we're clearly at a fork in the road here. I think it was that great statesman, Yogi Berra, who famously said, when you come to a fork in the road you should take it, and that's what we're proposing to do in this meeting.
Together, we have fought hard and successfully on behalf of America's families during these last six years. We have brought our nation to a moment of great prosperity, a time described by many economic experts now as a time with the strongest economy in the entire history of the United States. We have greater economic opportunity for all Americans. There are problems that remain to be addressed and we're keenly aware of that. That, too, is one of the reasons why we're here. We have both the obligation and the responsibility to make the right choices for America's families.
Now, this is not an election rally. This is the beginning of a congressional term. And I want to compare it to what happened after the election of 1992, when Bill Clinton and I asked our country to take a new direction and make a new start. It was the year following, in 1993, that the very difficult decision had to be made and we asked all Americans to join in the change that we thought was essential for our country.
We should never forget that while Republicans, along with independents and Democrats out in the heartland of our country, said, yes, it's time for a change, the dynamics within the Republican Party in the Congress worked in a way that prevented any Republican in the House or the Senate from voting for change. Not one, in either chamber. We provided all of the votes for the economic plan that is now responsible for this historic prosperity and progress and momentum in America. And we should remember that. (Applause.)
It was the closest of margins in both Houses and, I believe it was Dick Gephardt who cast the deciding vote in the House of Representatives, and it was Tom Daschle who rounded up the votes to give me a chance to vote in the Senate. But my point is this: We demonstrated, in 1993 and since that time, the unity of purpose that is essential to move our country in the right direction. Well, the American people have endorsed these policies, and our agenda. And they did so again in the elections of 1998.
Now, in the following year, in 1999, we're asking the American people to stay with this agenda, and to help us enact the changes that are needed now. We have the unity of purpose -- as a group, as a party, as a collection of men and women with dreams and hopes for the future of this country.
I would say that I think that the unity of purpose that you're seeing demonstrated here today is in contrast to some dissonance and division on the other side, and I'd ask the American people to take that into account when you hear the debates on the floor of the House and the floor of the Senate, and when you judge the comparative value of the agenda that we're talking about here, and what those on the other side are talking about. Once again, we ask for the support of the American people, including Republicans and independents and Democrats, to help us pass this agenda.
And first on the agenda is, as Dick and Tom have said, using the surplus not for some risky scheme, but, instead, to save Social Security first and protect Medicare; because now is the time to make certain that those programs are going to be in solid shape on into the future for decades to come.
Now is the time to make sure that all Americans get the best health care, and not just the cheapest health care. That's why we want to pass the legislation that has been described to you. Now is the time to create jobs and build more livable communities, by keeping our environment clean. Now is the time to protect Americans' privacy amid the new threat of this information age. I read in the newspaper this morning where some person said, well, privacy is gone, you might as well get used to it. Well, it's not and we can't allow that. We can protect the privacy of American families in this electronic age.
There's no reason why people of all parties can't join us to get this agenda passed. And we have to start with a clear principle. The key in '93 was fiscal responsibility. That's what made it tough. We knew that it would be a little time before the change really grabbed hold and, yes, our party paid a political price while the returns were still coming in, while we implemented the policies that have borne such fruit.
But we cannot turn back from that fiscal discipline. We have -- we started with the largest budget deficit in the history of our country and, thanks to Democrats, we now have the largest budget surplus in the history of the country. That's progress. (Applause.)
Now, what do we do with that surplus? What do we do with these good times? Well, the obvious answer is, we need to use the good times to prepare for the future, to invest in our people. No risky schemes; no casino policies of the kind that we saw in previous administrations, but good common sense. And this party is the party of solutions, and that's why, again, we're asking the American people to let us solve these problems.
Let me spend just a moment on one issue. I think most of us here are agreed that education is the top priority for investing in the future. And I think most Americans understand that there are two basic reasons why it has to be the top priority. First, we're obviously in an Information Age, when information is a bigger part of the economy, and learning has to be the key strategic skill.
Look at the want ads, and it's abundantly obvious that the millions of jobs that are opening up now -- so many of them which can't be filled today -- require specific skills in handling information and information technology. But you have to have the base of educational attainment that the three speakers who joined us this morning demonstrate in their lives, in order to get those skills, and then to hold down those jobs.
The second reason why education has to be the top priority is that the generation of young people in America today, 18 and under, has just passed by the baby boom, and now they're the largest generation in American history.
There are a couple of books now on the bestseller list about this generation of World War II veterans -- "the greatest generation," it's been called, those who won World War II. Well, after they won World War II, they came home and they saw the baby boomers crowding into the schools, and they saw that we were unprepared as a nation to give them the quality of educational experience they deserved. And so what did they do? They built new schools. They hired new teachers. They gave them the best training. They stocked the library shelves with the best and latest textbooks. They passed the G.I. Bill. They invested more in education than ever before.
And now the prosperity that we are reaping is in significant measure based on the investments that were made years ago in education that we were able to take advantage of in putting together the economic plan of 1993. Well, the challenge falls to us now. Since the generation of children in K through 12 is larger even than the baby boom, and since they're in crowded classrooms and portables and buildings that are falling down around their ears in some cases, will we rise to that challenge the way the World War II veterans rose to the challenges facing the baby boomers?
The answer that all of us are given here with this agenda that we present to the American people today is a resounding, yes. And it's not just in rhetoric. We have specific programs: hire 100,000 new teachers. We made the down payment last year, but let's go the rest of the way. And we're going to have a specific measure introduced within days by Senator Murray and Senator Kennedy, to have an amendment voted on to reduce class size down to an average of one to 18 in the early grade. That's the first vote on the Democratic agenda. (Applause.)
Secondly, we have a specific bill to give local communities, through the form of a tax cut, interest-free bonding authority for $25 billion worth of new school construction and repair, to give our children the modern, well-equipped classrooms and school buildings that they deserve. Let's pass this item on the Democratic agenda. (Applause.)
And as part of the education agenda we want to end social promotion, provide students the intensive help in school and after school -- after school, during that vulnerable window. (Applause.) We know how vulnerable children are during that period of the day. And we need after-school programs and other programs to give them enhanced opportunity. And we need to finish the job that was started three years ago and connect every single classroom and library to the Information Superhighway. We've made tremendous progress, let's finish that job. (Applause.)
Now, make no mistake about it -- let me conclude my talk on this education agenda by saying that we understand that there are those on the other side who think that money is the complete answer to everything. We believe that the investments of money need to be accompanied by the investments of time and heart and involvement. And where the federal role is concerned, when we allocate new funds to these priorities we should say our children deserve accountability for the large investment that we're making in education. We believe we ought to measure performance and make certain that we really are solving these problems. We know what works, and the evidence is all around us in every state represented here; in every congressional district represented here. We know what works, and we know how to keep it going in 1999.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, it's my honor to introduce to you the one person who has worked harder than anyone to focus on the right priorities for America's and future. He is the one person at the heart of our economic progress, the person who laid the foundation for one of the greatest job-creating engines our nation has ever known.
I'm pleased to introduce my friend, America's President, Bill Clinton. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you.
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. This has been a wonderful morning for me. When I listened to Maureen Marshall and Edwin Bobeale and Michael Saylor speak, I was again confirmed in my conviction that our principal responsibility here is to give the American people the tools, and create the conditions within which they can make the most of their own lives. And if we do that, they will do it every time. These three people represent more than 200 million Americans who deserve our best efforts.
I want to thank Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt for their truly outstanding leadership, for their personal friendship, and for their honest commitment to the cause that we meet to discuss today.
I thank the Vice President for being the best partner and friend, advisor and prodder any President could ever have. I can't believe he passed up a chance to remind us all today that in 1993, he cast the decisive vote on the budget plan, and whenever he votes, we win. (Applause.)
You know the real, sort of political story out of this meeting today may be that we will have to retire that famous old Will Rogers quip, "I don't belong to an organized political party, I'm a Democrat." The fact is we are organized and we are united. (Applause.) And we are united around an agenda for America's future -- to meet the long-term challenges of this country at the edge of a new century and new millennium; to build on what we have done for the last six years.
The new agenda is rooted in the same ideals with which we began in 1993 -- to bring opportunity to every American, to challenge every American to be a responsible citizen, and to build a community of all American citizens.
When you look around at this Democratic Caucus, the members of the House and the Senate, as the speakers were speaking, I had the opportunity to just scan both sides of this wonderful room today. You all really do look like America. You think like America, and you reflect America. (Applause.) As perhaps the only one of you who is term-limited, and therefore, faces the prospect of making the most of this next two years and leaving the rest to you, I felt enormously good, not just for my party, but for my country, to look at all of you, to know what I know about all of you, to know about your backgrounds and your perspectives and your experience and your commitment, and to see how in this caucus we have bridged every divide of America that will help us to bring our country together and go forward. And I'm very proud to be here with you today.
Let me say that when I ran for President in 1991 and 1992, I used to say something that seems almost strange today. I said, one of the reasons that I left a job at home that I loved and undertook this campaign is that I didn't want to see my daughter's generation grow up to be the first generation of Americans not to do as well economically or in terms of quality of life as their parents had done. Nobody worries about that anymore, but we did then.
And what we had before that was more than a decade in which the leaders of the other party talked tough, but took the easy way out. We were unashamed to be compassionate, unashamed that we cared about those who needed a hand up in life. But we were unafraid, when it came down to it, to take the tough decisions that cost many of our fellow Democrats their seats in Congress, but gave the American economy and the American people a new lease on the 21st century. (Applause.)
So what we came here today to talk about builds on what has happened in the last six years. It builds on our way of approaching our political responsibilities here, to put people ahead of partisanship, and common sense ahead of ideology. Now, we've already talked about how we turned the red ink to black -- that that helped to produce the longest peacetime expansion in our history, the lowest peacetime unemployment since 1957.
We ought to point out that we did it in a way that looked to the future -- not only reducing the deficit, but doubling our investment in education and training; putting 100,000 more police on our streets; making dramatic increases in medical research; immunizing 90 percent of our children from basic childhood diseases for the first time ever; providing millions and millions of people with the benefit of the Family and Medical Leave law; and making our environment cleaner. We showed, in other words, that we could balance the budget and honor our common values as Americans.
Now that, to use Senator Daschle's phrase, America is working again, the question is, what shall we do? And we're here to say that, as proud as we are of the record of the last six years, this is not a time to boast about the past, but to fulfill our solemn duty to the next generation, to meet the long-term challenges our nation faces.
We're for stronger families, with our child care program and our after-school learning; for a strong, enforceable patients' bill of rights; for the bipartisan legislation to help people with disabilities move into the workplace; for tax relief to help families provide long-term care; for an increase in the minimum wage and equal pay for men and women; and more free enterprise in our poorest inner city and rural communities.
We're for 50,000 more police on the street, and better technology for police, especially in the areas where crime is still too high. We stand together to pass the Earth on to our children with our livability initiative, for less traffic congestion and more greenspace. We stand together, as the Vice President has said, for strong, modern, more accountable schools; for giving teachers like Maureen the support they need to do even better.
Last winter, as has already been said, we issued our call, for the first time, for 100,000 more highly-trained teachers, to bring class size down in the early grades. And last fall, the Republicans in Congress finally agreed to make a significant down payment toward that goal. Now, in the next few days, the Senate will vote on whether to finish the job of hiring 100,000 new teachers to reduce class size. It will be our first big chance this year to prove to the American people that we are prepared to put people over party. Let's say politics stops at the schoolhouse door. (Applause.)
Now, I'd also like to ask that politics stop and that the Republican majority in Congress stand with us in meeting the greatest challenge we face, the aging of America. Life expectancy is rising, the number of older Americans will double by the year 2030. There will be only two people working for one person drawing Social Security by that time. Even before then, because people over 80 are the fastest growing group of Americans as a percentage of our country, Medicare will run out of money within nine years.
Now, I particularly appreciated what Edwin Bobeale said about this being an issue facing younger, as well as older, Americans; and not only because younger Americans would like to know they will have health care in retirement when they reach their retirement years, but also because the quality of life of the children of people on Medicare and Social Security, and their ability to raise their grandchildren, will be directly dependent upon whether they had to take needed resources away from their own family to care for their parents in ways that previous generations have not. This is a big issue.
But I want to say again -- and I feel it's a greater conviction as I grow older by the day -- this is a high-class problem. We face this challenge because we're living longer. We face this challenge because of the fruits of the medical research that the Congress has funded. We should not be hand-wringing here, we should be embracing this with joy. This is the inevitable result of our efforts to not only lengthen life, but to improve its quality. And because the Democrats took the lead so many years ago -- first in Social Security and then in Medicare -- we have a special responsibility to the American people to take the lead in resolving this. (Applause.)
Now, let me restate clearly our principles and where I think we are in this debate now -- because how we resolve these issues will shape how we resolve the other issues in this session of Congress. First, we should devote 52 percent of the surplus for the next 15 years to saving Social Security; to guarantee the soundness of Social Security for the next 55 years; and to enable us to make further choices, some of which will be difficult, to extend Social Security for 75 years, provide help for elderly women -- many of whom are in poverty -- and lift the earnings limit on people on Social Security.
Second, we should devote another 15 percent of the surplus to Medicare, to secure that vital program until the year 2020. And, again, I believe we should go further, with broader reforms to strengthen and improve Medicare and to meet the greatest growing need of our seniors -- affordable prescription drugs. (Applause.)
If we do this, that will still leave funds for other investments or for tax reduction. I believe we should devote over $500 billion of this surplus to give working families tax relief, creating universal savings accounts -- USA accounts -- that will help all Americans share in the nation's wealth and build nest eggs for retirement. If we do these things -- saving Social Security, saving Medicare, empowering more Americans to save for their own retirement -- we will fulfill our historic challenge to meet the difficulties and the opportunities of the aging of America in a way that provides a stronger economy and more stable families for our children.
If we use the surplus to save Social Security and strengthen Medicare, we will, for the next 15 years and beyond, be paying down the national debt, if we follow the proposal that we have made. We can reduce publicly-held debt to its lowest level since 1917, before we moved into World War I.
Let me say, for a member of Congress what that means is, 15 years from now, Congress will be allocating only 2 cents of every tax dollar to pay interest on the debt, instead of the 13 cents you have to take off the top today, before you can pass another bill to do another thing. That means -- and again, I was glad to hear Michael Saylor, who told that astonishing story of his company starting with $132 and winding up with 1,000 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth that have been created. You remember what he said? He said what they need from government is a responsible set of rational decisions that keep interest rates low and the economy strong. That is the most important thing.
And if we do this, we will drive down interest rates for the next 15 to 20 years. We could actually have our country completely out of debt, under this policy, in 18 years. And in a world in which the economy of other countries is obviously troubled at the moment, and in which future events are not predictable, we know one thing for sure: if we pay down this debt, and things are troubled beyond our borders, we'll do a lot better and interest rates will be a lot lower than they otherwise would have been. If things go well in the global economy, because of our efforts and others, we will do even better than we otherwise would have done.
And we know that the success of the American economy has reinforced the budget decisions made in 1993. We have got to keep this going. So I say, take care of Social Security, take care of Medicare, pay down the debt, keep the economy going. These things are the most important things we can do for our children in the 21st century. (Applause.)
Now, let me say where I think we are now. I have, frankly, been gratified to see that Republican leaders have quickly joined us in supporting the first idea, dedicating 62 percent of the surplus to save Social Security. At least, I believe the word they used was "setting aside" 62 percent of the surplus, and I'll come back to that in a moment. I've been further encouraged to see some of the Republicans backing away from the irresponsible across-the-board tax cut that is too costly, in favor of standing with us for targeted tax cuts benefitting mostly middle-class working families.
Last week, the majority leaders in Congress actually placed an ad in USA Today, with a nice letter promising to save Social Security, to give our children the world's best schools, to target tax relief to the middle class. That was the most welcome news I've read in USA Today, in terms of progress, since the NBA strike ended. (Laughter.) And I was encouraged by it.
But I want to make it clear, there are still strong differences in our approach, and we must resolve them in a way that benefits the American people -- in the Vice President's words, that benefit Republicans and independents and Democrats alike. We have to do what's right for the country.
First, while the Republicans are joining me in talking about setting aside a substantial part of the surplus for debt reduction and, presumably, for Social Security -- and we welcome that -- they still have said nothing about how they would extend the life of Social Security and whether they would dedicate all 62 percent of this surplus for that purpose. And that is very important.
Second, I ask the Republican majority to join us in devoting a portion -- 15 percent -- of the surplus to save Medicare. Now, this is very important. They have not done that so far. And, as you see from the difficulties of others who have struggled with these issues, and the fact that health care costs are beginning to rise again, we cannot secure Medicare as a guarantee for our seniors with any reasonable set of reforms, and keep it a recognizable, universal program, unless we also invest some more money in the program.
You can talk to any hospital that's administering programs that have Medicare patients. You can talk to any doctor. You can talk to anybody who's dealt with this program. We must have more money. So I ask those -- especially those who still maintain that somehow, out of the surplus, they can afford a very large across-the-board tax cut -- where will they find the resources to extend the life of Medicare?
I am not opposed to responsible reforms that enable us to secure Medicare for an even longer period, and to begin to add this prescription drug benefit so that we can really help people who need it. But I'm telling you, we cannot deal with the Medicare problem without a greater investment of money.
So, let's say, use the budget surplus to save Social Security, to save Medicare, to pay down the debt. Then we can have an honest and principled disagreement about how much and what kind of tax cut we need with the rest -- about how much should go to education; how much should go to defense; how much should go to medical research. But the first and most important things are save Social Security, save Medicare, pay down the debt, secure the future of our children. (Applause.)
Now, we stand today unified. We stand today well aware of the challenges before us. But we stand today beleaguered by beepers and message machines. (Laughter.) This is my last line I want to say about this. Will Rogers also used to say something that we do not have to disregard. He used to say -- and I quote -- "You've got to be an optimist to be a Democrat, and you've got to be humorous to stay one." (Laughter.)
Well, I urge you, let's bring a new energy to this session of Congress. When we get really frustrated by what seems to be excessive partisanship, let's remember these three fine American citizens who talked to us today, and the stories they told, and the hundreds of millions of people they represent. Let's keep our optimism, our good cheer, our resolve and our unity, to give them the 21st century they deserve.
Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore