As warm weather returns and the last days of school draw near, I’m sure that, like me, you’re looking forward to spending a lot of time outdoors this summer. As you read troubling headlines from Latin America and other parts of the world about the Zika virus, I’m also sure you are concerned about how to keep yourself and your family safe.
Let’s first understand the virus and the threat it poses to Virginia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Zika virus spreads primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, which is one of the types of mosquito present in Virginia during the summer months. According to the CDC, Texas, Florida and Hawaii are likely to be the US states with the highest risk of experiencing local transmission of Zika virus by mosquitoes, based on prior experience with similar viruses. However, additional states are assumed to be at some risk due to the presence of Aedes mosquitoes. While, as of May 11, there have been 15 cases of Zika virus among individuals traveling abroad and returning to the Commonwealth (or among family members and close contacts of such individuals), there have been no recorded cases of someone contracting the virus from a mosquito in Virginia. Furthermore, while I’m writing this, no one has been shown to have acquired the virus from a mosquito bite anywhere within the continental United States.
Most people infected with the Zika virus display no symptoms. Among those whose infections do develop into Zika virus disease, the illness is largely mild and marked by fever, rash, joint pain and/or red eyes for two to seven days. An infection usually does not lead to hospitalization, and death from Zika is extremely rare.
As you probably already know, though, the virus does pose significant risks to a fetus during pregnancy. The CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have both concluded that Zika infection during pregnancy is a cause of microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects.
Because of the connection between Zika and birth defects and the rare health threats the virus can pose to infected individuals, it is important for us to prevent the spread of the disease now and minimize our own risk of infection.
On Thursday, May 19, the Senate voted to approve a bipartisan $1.1 billion package to prevent transmission of the virus and treat infections. I also supported a larger $1.9 billion package that provided more resources to the Department of State, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Health and Human Services to address this crisis both at home and abroad. Combined with efforts already underway by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and many localities, this federal effort would ensure that a robust public health initiative is in place to help control this pandemic.
With public health officials at each level of government working to combat this disease, we should consider our own role in preventing infection and stopping the potential spread of the virus. VDH recommends that Virginians follow the CDC’s guidance for preventing Zika. By visiting www.cdc.gov/zika/prevention or www.ZikaVA.org, you can learn about what types of insect repellent are most effective at preventing mosquito bites and how bed nets, water treatment tabs, permethrin spray and condoms can help prevent the transmission of the disease in your home and outdoors. On www.ZikaVA.org, you can see the state Zika plan and other Virginia-specific information.
The CDC’s site contains specific guidance for pregnant women (www.cdc.gov/zika/pregnancy), women and couples considering pregnancy (www.cdc.gov/zika/pregnancy/thinking-about-pregnancy) and parents (www.cdc.gov/zika/parents).
The Aedes mosquito does not fly far from where it breeds. Therefore, it is important to prevent the population of mosquitoes from growing in and around your home. Make sure to use window and door screens; regularly clean, turn over, cover or throw out any indoor and outdoor items that hold water (e.g. tires, flower vases, toys, garbage bins); and use sprays or foggers to kill mosquitoes. For more information on where to look out for mosquitoes and what products to use in controlling them around your home, you can visit www.cdc.gov/zika/prevention/controlling-mosquitoes-at-home.
It’s important to reiterate that there are currently no reported cases of mosquitoes transmitting the Zika virus in Virginia or anywhere else in the continental United States. While this fact offers us some reassurance, it also provides us with a clean slate and golden opportunity to prevent or lessen the severity of a large-scale outbreak in the coming months. With proactive and responsive steps from all levels of government and due care from each of us, we can take control of this public health threat and enjoy this summer to its fullest.
This Month, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, fulfilling his constitutional duty to nominate someone for the vacancy created by the unexpected passing of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Judge Garland is a well-respected jurist with impeccable qualifications and unrivaled federal judicial experience. In 1997, he received strong bipartisan support in his confirmation to the D.C. Circuit, where he has served as chief judge for over three years. His legacy as an attorney includes overseeing some of the most difficult and significant anti-terrorism cases in our nation’s history, including the Oklahoma City bombing.
In an unprecedented display of obstruction, Senate Republicans are doubling down on their pledge to deny the president’s nominee a fair hearing and an up-or-down vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many others won’t even meet with him.
So is there something unusual about a Supreme Court vacancy during the last year of a president’s term? Is there a rule against considering a nominee during a presidential election year? The answer is no.
On more than a dozen occasions, the Senate has confirmed a Supreme Court justice in a president’s final year in office, including confirmation of Justice Anthony Kennedy under a Democratic majority during President Ronald Reagan’s last year.
Many Virginians have asked me why the Senate would choose to go against such clear historical precedent, and why members would choose to shirk such a basic part of our job descriptions.
Sadly, many share my fear that this is more about the identity of this particular president than his nominee. We saw a similar break with well-established precedent earlier this year when, for the first time since the Budget Act of 1974 was passed, budget committees in the House and Senate refused to hold hearings on the president’s annual budget.
Never before has a sitting president been denied his constitutional right to nominate someone for a Supreme Court vacancy. Never before have members of the Senate advocated leaving the Supreme Court with only eight justices for nearly a year so that, in the words of Senate Republicans, “the American people can decide.”
The fact is that the American people did decide. They re-elected President Obama to a second term in 2012, thereby giving him the constitutional responsibility to nominate justices to the Supreme Court from his first day in office to his last.
And if Senate Republicans believe that the president should no longer be permitted to do his job in his final year, what about the many Senators up for reelection in November? Should they just stop working now, until the American people decide whether they should still be in office after November?
At a time when the American people are rightly frustrated with Congress for not getting enough done, the idea of Senators refusing to take votes during an election year is shameful. And so is the suggestion that the president’s superbly qualified Supreme Court nominee should be denied a hearing.
If senators oppose Garland’s nomination, they should be willing to vote no and explain why. And as the majority, they have the votes to defeat the nominee if they choose. But by refusing to vote, they seek to avoid accountability, violating their oath of office and constitutional job description.
As elected leaders, we must show respect for our institutions of government. If we don’t, how can we expect any citizen to do so?
A refusal to even entertain Obama’s nominee disrespects the presidency, the Supreme Court and — most of all — Congress. I urge my colleagues to pull back from this unprecedented evasion of duty and give Garland a full hearing and the floor vote the Constitution commands.
In recent years, our local newspapers have been filled with heartbreaking remembrances of those who have succumbed to opioid addiction. "A dear Son." "A loving Mom, daughter, and sister." "A talented artist who wanted to take over his father's sign-making business." "Pursuing his passion of film and entertainment editing." "She thought she wanted to be a brain surgeon." Each in memoriam demonstrates the enormous promise that disappears with a death and the overwhelming pain that spreads through a family and a community upon learning that an overdose victim could not be revived.
The statistics around this ongoing epidemic are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin use has more than doubled among young adults aged 18 to 25 over the past ten years. Deaths from drug overdoses are steadily increasing especially among older adults; according to the CDC, in 2013 more than 12,000 Baby Boomers died of accidental drug overdoses-more than the number who died in car accidents or from influenza and pneumonia. The subtle ways that heroin use enters a person's life are even more unsettling. Eighty percent of new heroin users have previously misused opioids, and individuals who misuse prescription opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin. This crisis started in the medicine cabinet.
In March, the Senate took a big step to address this crisis when it overwhelmingly passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), a bill that will help expand opioid abuse prevention and better educate communities about how to address the problem. Included in the bill was an amendment I sponsored to authorize Medicare Part D prescription plans to utilize a patient review and restriction tool called a "lock-in" measure. A "lock-in" would connect seniors at risk for addiction with preventive resources and restrict them to one pharmacy and one provider when acquiring certain controlled substances, such as opioid painkillers. CARA will also give first responders and law enforcement expanded access to naloxone, an overdose antidote that has reversed more than 26,000 overdose cases between 1996 and 2014.
Because of naloxone's efficacy, I'm glad that, earlier this month, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee took another step to address this crisis by passing the Co-prescribing Saves Lives Act, a bill that I sponsored with Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. This bipartisan legislation would encourage physicians to co-prescribe naloxone alongside opioid prescriptions and would make it more widely available in federal health settings, putting this life-saving drug in the hands of people who are at heightened risk for overdose. I believe co-prescribing naloxone can make a significant impact as part of a comprehensive, multipronged strategy to end this crisis.
As I travel across Virginia, I continue to see the tragic consequences of opioid abuse in our communities-parents mourning the loss of children, law enforcement officers exhausted by escalating crime rates, and everyday people struggling to find treatment for their addiction. At the same time, though, I see communities coming together to combat this epidemic. At a Senate Aging Committee field hearing in Leesburg, I heard from experts, community leaders, and state officials who were collaborating on this problem. In Lebanon, I participated in a training session with Project REVIVE, which educates people on how to administer naloxone in the case of an overdose. And across the state, drug courts are changing the way we handle drug crimes and steering people toward paths of long-term recovery.
The stories of Virginians fighting this epidemic on the front lines have greatly informed my efforts to fight this epidemic at the federal level. As families, law enforcement, physicians, former users and concerned citizens work to bring communities and individuals into recovery from addiction, the federal government must implement a comprehensive strategy to bring our nation into recovery from the opioid crisis.
In recent years we’ve commemorated the English and Spanish heritage of our nation’s founding. In 2004 we marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia by the English colonists in 1604. In 2015 we celebrated the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Florida. Both the English and the Spanish commemorations included activities sponsored by federal commissions, which were voted on and passed by Congress. August 2019 will mark 400 years after the first documented arrival of Africans who came to English America by way of Point Comfort, Virginia. Not only is it appropriate to establish a commission that would recognize the African heritage of African Americans, it is historically significant to acknowledge that although in 1619 slavery was not yet an institution, the “20 and odd” Africans (as it was recorded) were the first recorded group of Africans to be sold as involuntary laborers or indentured servants in the colonies.
On Thursday, February 11th, I joined leaders from the NAACP, Senator Mark Warner, Congressmen Bobby Scott and Don Beyer and Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus G. K. Butterfield to introduce the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act. This bill would establish a commission that would plan programs and activities across the country to recognize the arrival and influence of Africans and their descendants in America since 1619. The commission would be charged with highlighting the resilience and contributions of African Americans, as well as acknowledging the painful impact that slavery and other atrocities have had on our nation.
The four hundred-year history of African Americans is full of tragedies like slavery. Those horrors have shaped the black experience in America and should be remembered as moral catastrophes. However that is not the whole story of African American history. African Americans have contributed to the economic, academic, social, cultural and moral well-being of this nation.
Without African Americans, some of America’s crowning achievements would not have been possible. Would American literature be as prolific without the giants of the Harlem Renaissance? Would American music have conquered the world without pioneers like Lead Belly, Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson or James Brown? Could we claim America as the most innovative nation on earth without the invention of the modern traffic light, perfection of the carbon filament, or use of the mathematics that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon? No. African American culture is American culture, and African American discoveries are American discoveries. Without the creativity and inventiveness of African Americans, the United States could not boast the ingenuity and cultural richness that we so pride.
As we contemplate the challenges and injustices that African Americans still face, we remember the tragic way in which African American history began and draw inspiration from the heroes and trailblazers who fought under our country’s principle that all people are created equal. These heroes and trailblazers and the millions of African Americans who have worked, created, invented, discovered, lived, aged and died over the past 400 years have molded our national character such that the United States would be unrecognizable and, indeed, lesser without their presence.
The story of America is the interwoven progress, influence and experience of many different peoples. As the commissions to commemorate the anniversaries of English and Spanish arrival has demonstrated. A commission to recognize the 400 years of African Americans in this country seems just as appropriate. As 2019 approaches, I look forward to reflecting on the story of African Americans. Their triumphs over adversity and gifts to America are worthy of acknowledgment. It is my hope that the establishment of a “400th” commission would create an opportunity to bring these stories to the forefront of our consciousness and create a space to discuss race relations in American as we focus on dismantling the institutional systems that have adversely hindered African American progress.
Full transcript of Senator Kaine’s remarks on the Senate floor
Mr. President, I rise today to talk about the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act of 2015, which was an act passed by the House shortly before we recessed for Thanksgiving. An act dealing with the refugee crisis from Syria and Iraq. And it's an act that is sort of pending before the body now as we try to decide whether to take up the House bill or take up the topic of the House bill as part of other deliberations we're engaged in.
First, I think everyone in this body and everyone in the House acknowledges the security needs of America in this challenging time as we're engaged in a battle against ISIL and, as we have seen in recent weeks the reach of ISIL, whether it's a passenger aircraft in Sinai, a neighborhood in southern Beirut or multiple neighborhoods in Paris, ISIL's threat is expanding and mutating, and we have to take those security concerns seriously.
I applaud the work that has already been done to try to make sure that the vetting process for refugees that enter the United States is pretty intense. Four million refugees have left Syria during the course of the Syrian civil war. Of those four million who have left and registered with the U.N. after a fairly extensive review process, the U.N. has referred 20,000 to the United States for possible consideration to be refugees, and of those 20,000, after an 18-month vetting process, we have allowed approximately 2,000 into the United States.
So the vetting process for refugees is pretty intense. If we can make it better, we need to do that, but it is already fairly significant. I also applaud efforts that the Administration announced yesterday and that other colleagues including, Mr. President [Sen. Flake], you and others are working on to take the visa waiver program that we currently have that allows citizens from 38 countries to come to the United States without visas, to make sure that that program is tight. We've got to do our best in a careful and deliberate way to make sure that our security in the midst of this battle against ISIL is strong.
But, Mr. President, I rise today to talk particularly about this act because I think it's problematic and I think it's problematic from the very title of the act. And I think it raises some questions we have to be very careful about.
Syrian and Iraqi refugees are not foreign enemies. Refugees are not the enemies of the United States. We have an enemy.
The enemy is ISIL.
We're coming up on the start of the 17th month of a war against ISIL that Congress has been unwilling to debate, vote on and declare, but they are an enemy, and we would all acknowledge that, but the refugees who are leaving Syria and Iraq are not our enemies. They're victims. They are victims. And I think before we go down the path of quickly -- and this bill was passed in the House in just a couple of days -- of painting with a broad brush these poor people who have suffered so much as enemies, we really need to reflect on what they have been through.
This refugee crisis in Syria has been called by most NGOs and other organizations like the U.N. the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. In a country of between 25 million and 30 million people, 4 million have had to flee their country because of the atrocities of the Assad regime and the atrocities of the civil war carried out by ISIL and other terrorist organizations. 4 million have had to leave their country. 8 million more have had to leave their homes and move to other places in their country where they would prefer not to live because their homes are unsafe because of the civil war.
Nearly 300,000 Syrians have been killed in this civil war. And the atrocities are horrible. The Assad regime uses barrel bombs in civilian neighborhoods to kill innocents, without any rhyme or reason as to where they’re going to fall, creating psychological terror as well as physical danger. And ISIL in Syria, it's beheadings, it's the forced subjugation of people and selling them into sexual slavery, it's the oppression of religious minorities. Virtually any religion other than a Sunni extremist that would fit within ISIL's narrow definition of who they think true believers are. And this is what people are fleeing from.
You know, Mr. President, I really want to emphasize -- and I just want to emphasize this point, that refugees are not our enemies. They’re not foreign enemies. They're victims that deserve compassion.
This is a photograph that's a fairly famous photograph one from a suburb in Damascus, Yarmouk, that is filled with Palestinian refugees who have been waiting for food. The Assad regime had cordoned them off and would not allow humanitarian aid because they thought that there were opponents of the regime in this neighborhood. This was a photograph taken in January of 2014 when the U.N. finally could come in to try to deliver humanitarian food aid to these folks.
You can see just the tens of thousands of people who are waiting in the midst of their bombed-out neighborhood for a delivery of basic food aid, which has been very episodic during the course of this war. And this neighborhood has gone back under blockade. And it has been extremely difficult to get them the food that they need. These are not enemies. These are people who are worthy of the compassion of any person and especially of a nation as compassionate as the United States.
And then more recently I know we were all just stunned to see this horrible photograph of a three-year-old Syrian boy who, with his family and a group of 12 Syrians, tried to make it across water to Greece, fleeing atrocities in the battle between Kurds and ISIL in northern Syria. And 12 members of this family -- 12 members in a boat were killed and drowned, including this three-year-old and his five-year-old brother. These are not enemies. And to have an act that purports to deal with this refugee crisis and to call this an act that's an act about foreign enemies -- they're not enemies. And there's no way we should allow a kind of tar-brush approach that would paint these poor unfortunates who are the victims of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II as if they're somehow enemies. We should have a compassionate response that protects American security but that is nevertheless compassionate.
Mr. President, these photographs really grab me, and the rhetoric surrounding these refugees and the fact that they were called enemies when this act passed really grabbed me.
I found myself thinking about it, not so much even in just the policy way. I mean, what is the right policy? What's the right mixture of things we should do to keep the country safe? That's very important, but these kinds of pictures make you think about something just more fundamental: why does this happen?
Since the beginning of time, human beings have asked, why is there suffering of this kind? Why must hundreds of thousands be huddled into a bombed-out neighborhood and be nearly starved to death and wait for a delivery episodically from the U.N.? Why would a family have to flee from their home and with their children killed to try to get away from atrocities? Why, if you were a student from California State at Long Beach on a semester abroad program in Paris and you’re sitting in a café and then you get gunned down by ISIL terrorists, why if you're a tourist coming back from a vacation in the Sinai with your family, you suddenly have your plane bombed out of the sky?
Humans have asked this question since the beginning of time. Why do these things happen? And there are two conventional answers to the question of why these things occur, and then there's a nonconventional answer that I think is a very challenging one that we as a body and as a country really have to grapple with.
The two conventional answers to why there is horrible suffering like this are obviously there's evil in the world and there's evil within. So there's evil out in the world and then there's evil within and we make mistakes. Clearly there's evil in the world. ISIL is evil. Refugees are not evil. You know, I think it's interesting, again, that we -- that one of the bodies here could come up with a piece of legislation, draft it, debate it and vote on it in a couple of days to label refugees as foreign enemies when we've been at war for 17 months against ISIL and we haven't been able to have a debate in this body to authorize military force and declare that they're an enemy?
There is evil in the world, and part of what we must do is call it out and be willing to stand against it.
The great Irish poet Yeats talked about a situation where the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity. I worry that this body, this legislative body, this Article 1 branch which is the best, we have not shown the conviction to call out evil in the way that we should call it out and mistakenly we're calling people evil who aren't evil but who are deserving of compassionate help from us and from other nations. That's the first explanation of why evil occurs. There's evil out in the world, and there is -- and ISIL is evil. The atrocities of Assad are evil. We ought to call it out.
The second explanation is our own weakness. You have to look in the mirror and ask when bad things happen whether to yourself or your country, did we do anything wrong? I have a concern, Mr. President, that when the chapter of this is written, the Syrian refugee crisis, neither the United States nor other nations are going to look that good. It is going to be kind of like looking back at the 1990s and why the U.S. was able to intervene and stop atrocities in the Balkans and chose not to in Rwanda. The answer to why we did in one instance and not the other, I don’t think that looks that good in retrospect. I worry, with respect to this refugee crisis 4 million, 8 million people killed, these children and their families, I think we do have to look in the mirror and we do have to ask ourselves whether we have done enough or whether we can do more.
But lastly, Mr. President, and I will a say this, there's a nonconventional explanation of why suffering occurs that is a challenging one and it is in the Book of Job. You’ve got a Bible up there on your desk. The President has it right there because it is such a great book of wisdom, and I know you know the story, but it’s an interesting one as we grapple with suffering like this and we have to ask why it occurs.
So Job was an upright and righteous man. He was a blameless person, a person of integrity. And the storytellers -- this story was written about 500 B.C. -- posit this debate between God and Satan, where God is talking about how great Job is, and Satan says, Job is only great because he is wealthy, has a great family, he’s healthy. If he lost that, he would cease being so faithful. God says, no I think he'd be faithful anyway. Satan says, let's have a little wager, and let’s see what happens. That's how the Book of Job begins.
This upright and blameless man who has everything proceeds to very quickly lose everything. He loses his wealth. He loses his family. He loses his health. Not because of his own sin or his own weakness or his own error or his own mistake. Not because of evil in the world.
He suffers because he's being tested. That's the reason he suffers. And as the story goes on, he's tested, he's tested. He argues with God, he fights with God, but he doesn't let go of his faith. And in the end of the story, this Book of Job -- this is a book that is not only in the Old Testament, and studied by Jews and Christians alike, it is in the Koran -- this is a story that all the Abrahamic faith traditions have grabbed onto because it has a fundamental piece of wisdom to it.
Sometimes when suffering like this occurs it is not just because of evil in the world or our own sin, it is because bad things happen to test us as individuals. Bad things happen and sometimes test us as a country.
I look at this refugee crisis as a test. It's a test about whether we, like Job, will be true to our principles or whether we’ll abandon them. Job was true to his principles and then things came back to him multiplied. Are we going to be true to our principals?
My state of Virginia began when English, who were starving, were helped out by Indians down near Jamestown Island. There was an extension of a hand to strangers in a strange land that enabled them to survive unlike earlier parties that had been wiped out by starvation or battle with Indians.
My people came from Ireland in the 1840s. They were chased out by oppression, they were chased out by hunger. My people have the same story that virtually everybody who came to the United States had. Some came under much worse conditions, brought over in slavery and servitude.
The nation of France recognized the United States for what it was, this beacon of liberty people from around the world -- when France gave to the United States the Statue of Liberty, which we planted in New York Harbor right next to Ellis Island where so many people came into this country, and nobody who came here had it easy.
People faced signs, "no Irish need apply" or they faced discrimination or oppression, but they didn’t face a door being shut on their face and being told they were foreign enemies when they were really refugees looking for a better situation in life.
So as I think about what we're grappling with and what we may be called to vote on in the next ten days in this body, I really think about this massive scale of human suffering that's going on with respect to Syria and I think about that wisdom from the Book of Job, which is sometimes suffering and adversity is to test us. Are we going to abandon our principles? Not going to be the Statue of Liberty nation? Not going to be the nation that will extend a hand of welcome or friendship to people who have suffered? Or are we going to be true to our principles? And again and again in our nation's history and in the history of other nations, it's been shown that if you are true to your principles, especially true to them during times of adversity, then you're worthy of respect.
You teach important lessons to your kids and to the generations that follow, and usually things work out. I think our nation's principles are solid. They are rock solid. And in the heat of the moment, we shouldn't abandon them. And we shouldn't abandon people who have suffered and are suffering with the kind of hot legislative language that would label them as "foreign enemies" when they are just refugees in the same way that people throughout history have been refugees needing a compassionate response from others.
Thank you, Mr. President. With that, I yield the floor.