Whitehouse: Cutting Pell Grants is Unacceptable

As Prepared for Delivery

Mr. President, I rise to discuss our work towards addressing the national debt and staving off a default on our financial obligations.  First, I would like to commend Leader Reid for putting forward a proposal which would make a serious down payment on deficit reduction and end the impasse over the debt ceiling – and to encourage my Republican colleagues to support it.

I would also like to address developments on the other side of the capitol, where House Republicans, are continuing their “my way or the highway,” which President Lincoln called “rule or ruin,” approach to these negotiations.  Amazingly, news reports indicate that Pell Grants may be put on the chopping block in Speaker Boehner’s latest effort to appease the most extreme members of his party.  Mr./Madam President, this is simply unacceptable.

When Rhode Island’s great Senator Claiborne Pell first proposed the grants that now bear his name, he envisioned a grant that would enable-low income students to attend our country’s wonderful colleges and universities so they too could share in the American dream.  In 1976, the first year that Pell Grants were fully funded, a full Pell Grant paid 72 percent of the cost of attendance at a typical four-year public college.  Today, a full Pell Grant covers just 34 percent of those costs.  Still, this vital assistance can often mean the difference between being able to attend college or not.  With many families in Rhode Island and the country still struggling in this economy, we should be looking for ways to strengthen Pell Grants, not weaken them.

And during my time in the Senate, we have taken some steps to improve this program.  After four years of level funding under President Bush, we began to increase the maximum grant once more, from $4,050 in academic year 2006-2007 to $5,550 for this coming academic year.  We also increased the minimum family income that automatically qualifies a student for the maximum Pell grant, a change that better reflects today’s economic realities. 

But despite the need for continued investment in our future through Pell Grants, a need that has long had bipartisan backing, House Republicans this year began an outright assault on Pell Grant funding.  This at a time when the grants are needed more than ever – as the economic downturn has led more people to seek a higher education in an effort to find a job.  Despite that, the House Republican budget would have slashed Pell Grants, reducing the average award by $1,775, and cutting off more than 1.3 million students -- including 5,794 students in Rhode Island.  I understand the need to find savings in the federal budget, and to make difficult choices, but of all the bad choices we could make, this is among the worst.  We need a highly trained workforce, and Pell Grants make the promise of a college education a reality. 

After the Senate defeated the House Republican budget, I hoped that the assault on Pell Grant funding was behind us.  Yesterday, however, The Hill newspaper reported that some Republican House Members are opposing Speaker Boehner’s debt ceiling increase bill over funding it provides for Pell Grants.  In this article, Pell Grants were called “welfare.”  This morning, there is talk that cuts to Pell Grants are being discussed in order to get some of the most far-right members of the Speaker’s caucus to support his bill. 

Remember that these House Republicans continue to protect every tax giveaway to special interests, but want to cut off access to college for regular kids.  The simple fact is this:  Pell Grants help low income people achieve the dream of college and improve their prospects for employment.  It doesn’t give them a free ride, but a boost – and it’s a wise investment in the future of our country. 

Earlier this week, student and education advocacy organizations, including the Education Trust, Campus Progress, the National Council of La Raza, and the United States Student Association, joined together to “Save Pell”.  I applaud their advocacy and commitment to fighting for Pell grants, and am proud to join their effort.    I strongly urge House Republicans to end their reckless attack on the American middle class, take the victory you’ve been offered, and work with Democrats on a bipartisan solution to avert a debt ceiling collision and reduce our deficits.  

I yield the floor.