Congress returns to work next week after spending the summer ignoring the Zika outbreak in Florida and Puerto Rico. Among it’s critics — New Jersey’s Senior Sen. Bob Menendez. He spoke with NJTV News Correspondent Michael Hill.
Hill: Senator, thank you for joining us.
Menendez: Good to be here, Michael.
Hill: First of all, I want to ask how’s your daughter? Five months pregnant in Miami. How’s she doing?
Menendez: Well, she’s doing well, taking care of herself but totally disappointing and frustrated that her government isn’t doing what is necessary to take care of her and her unborn child. So, as her parent, as her father it’s so frustrating to me that in the Senate we negotiated a compromise from the president’s $1.9 billion emergency funding for Zika down to $1.1 billion, passed it in the Senate in May only to see it languishing in the House of Representatives where they went out of recess without even bringing it up because they wanted to introduce things like no money for family planning and whatnot — even though Zika can be transmitted through sexual intercourse. The reality is, is that it is so frustrating and I just hope that when we go back next week that we can make the House come to their senses.
Hill: How do you do that though? If they don’t see the light here in the peak of mosquito season in places like Florida and throughout the country how do you convince them to say, “We need to address this issue right now?”
Menendez: Well, I think we need a national outcry. Every time that I talk about the Zika before a different group, women automatically are concerned. Women, even those who aren’t pregnant but understand having gone through a pregnancy and whatnot and the joy and sometimes the challenges of having a child understand that to add this as a worry would be incredible. The cost to us as a nation for every child that is affected with the Zika virus through encephalitis. And well, I just hope that Adlai Stevenson’s admonition that “when I get the heat at home I see the light in Washington” is going to take place for the members of Congress in the House of Representatives who haven’t acted.
Hill: The Obama administration has been taking money from other programs, Ebola funding and other programs. I understand your colleagues in the Senate — Lankford, Grassley of Ohio talking about some $20 billion unspent money in the State Department’s budget that given a 15 day notice can be used for things like fighting Zika. Has anyone asked for that other than Lankford or Grassley, talked about that amount of money or at least a portion of it?
Menendez: Well the problem is that we’re, you know, taking from serious — it may be unspent money, that doesn’t mean that it’s uncommitted money. You know, we’re fighting malaria in different parts of the world, we’re still dealing with overcoming Ebola in Africa. There are other challenges as well and as we’ve seen disease knows no boundaries or barriers. And so, this is not just being good to the world, it’s being good in our own interests at the end of the day to stop those diseases from reaching our shores. So you know, the essence of the nation when I hear my Republican colleagues talk about defending the American people, well yes it’s from ISIS and it’s from foreign challenges but it’s also from disease. It seems to me that the emergency of Zika needs emergency response. The sooner we can get a vaccine created the better off we will be.
Hill: We’ve lost time?
Menendez: We’ve lost time.
Hill: Let’s talk about the flights to Cuba. Commercial flights resumed yesterday for the first time in more than 50 years. Direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba. You opposed that. Tell me why.
Menendez: Well, because all we’re doing is enriching the Castro regime at the expense of human rights and democracy. So, if we could create, for example, business opportunities with the average Cuba person — if the average Cuban person was free to decide, you know, that I want to start up a little business, a little barber shop or restaurant or a repair shop and be able to profit from that and then because of their economic freedom see greater freedoms from the government. That might be a catalyst. But all that’s happening here is that in Cuba there are only two main entities that you can deal with. Both are controlled by the Castro regime. One is controlled by Castro’s son, the other one is controlled by his son-in-law. Both of them part of the Cuban military, both of the profits from the proceeds go to the Cuban military. So, we’re actually propping up a regime that oppresses its people and has actually been since the president’s initiative more repressive, more arrests have been taking place, more beatings of human rights activists and political dissonance because they think the message is we want to do business with you, we want to go to your beaches and we’re willing to let human rights and democracy fall by the wayside.
Hill: So, what would you want to see to make it acceptable to you to have relationships with Cuba — direct flights?
Menendez: The law that I helped write several years ago makes it very clear. If the regime is willing to free political prisoners, permit independent journalists like yourself, ultimately hold free elections in which they can even run by the way, if they can run and win and that’s what the Cuban people want then fine, but permit free elections. Similar to what to President Obama did when he was dealing with Burma. He said, “You have to free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, you have to allow the UN Commission on Human Rights in, you have to hold legislative elections and then we can have a relationship with you” and guess what? That’s exactly what Burma did. And so, those are openings for free expression and democratic processes to be observed. I don’t know why the people of Cuba deserved any less.
Hill: Let’s talk about — I know you just came from a big ceremony talking about the deepening New York Harbor. What’s that going to mean for this region?
Menendez: This is a project that I’ve been working on since I entered the House of Representatives.
Hill: That was a long time ago senator.
Menendez: That’s a long — you know I’m privileged to say it was 24 years ago. We have the mega port of the East Coast but it was strangled by the fact that we couldn’t get drudging permits so that the ships with the deep poles could come into the port. They were looking to go elsewhere to Halifax, Canada. This was 250,000 jobs at the time, billions of dollars of economic activity that were going to be lost and I convened an all parties office meeting where I locked the door of my office and I said to the EPA, the Army Corps, NOAA and the White House Environmental Quality Council — at that time it was President Clinton’s administration — I said we’re not leaving this office until we come to an agreement. The long story made short is that we came to an agreement, we stopped dumping contaminated sediments into our ocean, we used them for beneficial reuse so IKEA and places along the Newark Airport that you see when you land, those were all beneficial reuses as dredged materials, we cut the backlog permits and we had the greatest channel deepening project in the nation’s history and that means now 330,000 jobs from the port region, over $25 billion of personal income, $55 billion of business income and $7 billion in state federal and local tax revenue. So this is a tremendous economic burst and a great celebration of making and keeping New York and New Jersey the megaport of the East Coast.
Hill: I’m looking forward to reap some benefits. All right, thank you senator.
Menendez: Thank you.