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Department of Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR, ENVIRONMENT, AND RELATED AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2006

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

The Senator from Pennsylvania [Mr. SANTORUM], for himself, Mrs. Hutchison, Mr. Craig, Mr. Kyl, Mr. Frist, Mr. McConnell, Mr. Talent, Mr. Thune, and Ms. Collins, proposes an amendment numbered 1071.

Mr. SANTORUM. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that reading of the amendment be dispensed with.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

The amendment is as follows:

On page 1, line 2, strike the word ``Sec'' through page 1, line 9 and insert the following:

Sec. 429. (a) From the money in the Treasury not otherwise obligated or appropriated, there are appropriated to the Department of Veterans Affairs $1,500,000,000 for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2005, for medical services provided by the Veterans Health Administration, which shall be available until expended.

Mr. SANTORUM. Mr. President, this is the amendment that was just referred to by my colleague from West Virginia. It is an amendment that takes the level of funding in the underlying amendment up to $1.5 billion and has that money spread to where the need is the greatest with respect to the problems and the shortages within the Veterans' Administration. It leaves the Secretary the ability to make that decision. We think that is vitally important, when there is a shortfall, that the money goes to where it is most needed.

I would say that I do this on behalf of the Senate Republican leadership. All of us in our meetings this week have been quite dismayed by what was apparently bad management, bad forecasting over in the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the problems of communicating that information accurately to the Congress.

So as a member of leadership, we wanted to offer this amendment, in I think very strong terms, to show our concern about the lack of communication, about the problems that were going on in the Veterans' Administration in the health care area. It is vitally important, particularly at a time of war, when we have a lot of our men and women who have been injured in that war moving over from the Department of Defense health care facilities to the Veterans' Administration health care facilities, that we get accurate information as to what the impact of that is and that we can budget for it accordingly.

In fact, in April of this year, as the Senator from West Virginia just alluded to, many of us on this side of the aisle voted against an amendment by Senator Murray because of the understanding and assurances by the Veterans' Administration that there was sufficient funding to provide for veterans health care. We were in error. Senator Murray was right. And I am not happy that we were put in a position to vote against an amendment that, as we now find out, was needed. But we got bad information.

So this is an attempt to rectify that situation. Let's hope it does not happen again. It cannot happen again. I hope the fact that members of the Republican leadership are on this amendment, as well as the chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and the chairman of the subcommittee of jurisdiction, Senator Hutchison, on the Appropriations Committee, sends a very loud and clear message to the administration that we like straight dealing when it comes to the issues of providing quality health care to our Nation's veterans.

I congratulate our colleagues over in the House and the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee over there, Congressman Buyer, for his work in digging and getting some of this information to the fore.

I was at a VFW State convention a couple weeks ago, on June 17, and was asked some pretty pointed questions about veterans health care and was told that there were real problems in our State of shortages and the shifting of moneys. And so that was a Friday. The following Monday is when this hearing occurred--on June 20. Subsequently, as a result of the input I was getting from veterans in that hearing, I sent a letter to Secretary Nicholson last week expressing my, shall I say, deep concern about this and about this shortfall of funding and about the lack of candor on the part of the administration in telling us what was going on with the funding of our veterans facilities.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that letter dated June 24, 2005 be printed in the RECORD.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

U.S. SENATE,

DIRKSEN SENATE OFFICE BUILDING,

Washington, DC, June 24, 2005.
Hon. R. JAMES NICHOLSON,
Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC.

DEAR SECRETARY NICHOLSON: I WRITE TODAY TO EXPRESS MY GRAVE CONCERNS WITH DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS' FISCAL YEAR 2005 BUDGET SHORTFALL.

News of this shortfall is extremely disturbing in light of your assurances that the Department of Veterans Affairs did not need additional funding in fiscal year 2005 to care for our nation's veterans. It was this assurance that influenced me to oppose emergency supplemental funds for the Department this spring.

Following the Senate's vote to reject these emergency supplemental funds, my staff and I met with veterans concerned about the immediate funding needs of the Department of Veterans Affairs. During these meetings, I learned that medical centers, because of financial constraints, had begun shifting capital funds into health care accounts to maintain health care services for veterans.

I am disappointed that the Department was not more forthcoming about these financial constraints. Had the Department been candid and transparent in its assessment of financial needs during the current fiscal year, the outcome of a recent Senate vote might have been very different.

So that we can be responsive to the health care needs of veterans, I urge you to immediately begin working with the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and Congress to address the funding shortfall impacting the Department in fiscal year 2005. With the support of Chairman Craig and Chairman Hutchison of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, I am confident the Senate can address this shortfall.

In the future, when providing comment to Congress, I urge you to be candid when asked for your personal views on matters impacting the needs of the Department of Veterans Affairs. There may be instances where you believe that the Administration has erred or provided incomplete information. We look to you to be the person who can inform Congress on the needs of the Department and our nation's veterans.

I appreciate your consideration of this matter and please know of my interest in working with you to address this problem.

Sincerely,

RICK SANTORUM,
U.S. Senate.

Mr. SANTORUM. I expressed in this letter that I was disappointed the Department was not forthcoming, and I was hopeful they would come forward and let us know what was necessary, how much money was needed, so we could then respond. And as I mentioned in the letter, I was confident the Senate and the House would respond.

I think what you are seeing here today is my prognostication is correct. We are going to respond, and we are going to respond with the money they say they need.

Now, I would suggest that if you look at the analysis that Senator Byrd provided for us as to where this money is coming from, some of it was unanticipated and, potentially, you could argue was something that could not have been forecasted or budgeted with the number of people who are transferred from the Defense Department over to the VA as a result of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a lot of this was simply just poor administration and not accurately forecasting the utilization of the system.

I think we have to do a better job of understanding what the needs are, what the demands are and have a better understanding of what the budget should be and accurately reflect that budget in submissions to the Congress.

So I know the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the Senate, Senator Craig, has had those kinds of candid conversations with the Secretary. I know all of us look forward to working cooperatively with the new Secretary in making sure we can get the information we need to be able to properly provide for the health care needs of the veterans whom we have promised to serve.

Mr. President, I thank my colleagues for joining in putting this amendment forward. I thank the Senator from Washington for her work and for her diligence and early work in this area. I am glad we were able to work together. Hopefully, we will work in a bipartisan way not just to provide these resources but to make sure we get a better and more accurate accounting of the cost of providing the care that our veterans need here in America.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.

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Mr. SANTORUM. Mr. President, I will yield time to the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. I thank Senator Hutchison, whose principal responsibility is the appropriations process. I thank her and her staff tremendously for the work they have done. I thank Senator CRAIG and his staff for the tremendous work they have done, in coming forward and digging and getting the proper language for this amendment so we can provide funding for this year and for next year, as it is needed, to make sure we are providing the quality care our veterans deserve.

With that, I yield such time as he may consume to the Senator from Idaho.

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Mr. SANTORUM. Mr. President, I thank the Senator from Washington again, as I did earlier, for her work. I thank her also for the tone and for the way she presented her case. I think it would express the concern and frustration on both sides of the aisle about the problems we are confronting and have confronted for many years in providing adequate funding through administration after administration--at least three I am aware of, three administrations I am aware of where the administration has not properly funded veterans' health care in particular. The Congress has always had to come and add more money. This is nothing new. What is new in this case is that we have had to come at a late time and add additional resources. I think it is unfortunate.

As I said earlier, I was very critical of this administration for not being more forthright and felt, as the Senator from Idaho suggested, that when we cast our votes against the Murray amendment, we did so not with the information we needed. The administration, justifiably, should be criticized for that.

Unfortunately, the tone the Senator from Nevada took, the Democrat leader, was not one of frustration that all were sharing but simply an attempt to launch into a partisan attack which, given the nature and tenor of what we have been working on, was very unfortunate. One of the most unfortunate comments, which I hope the Senator from Nevada will think better of and come back and correct the record, was to suggest that ``the only qualifications of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is that he was chairman of the Republican National Committee'' is an insult to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and his service to this country.

This is a man who is a West Point graduate who served 8 years in active military and served tours in Vietnam. He earned the Bronze Star. He earned the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, and two Air Medals. This is not a man whose only qualification was he was chairman of the RNC. He went on and served in the Reserves for 20 years, earned additional degrees, ran and started a business, and was ambassador to the Holy See. This man has a lot more qualifications as Secretary of Veterans Affairs than many prior Secretaries. I hope the Senator from Nevada would reconsider his shot at this Secretary.

Do I have concerns about the information provided? Absolutely. Does the Secretary have to come and have an accounting for what he said and what he did in his short term now as Secretary? Absolutely. Has he been called on the carpet in both the House and Senate? Absolutely. Will he be over the next few months? Absolutely. But to take a shot at him personally in such a partisan fashion is beneath the leader of the Democrat Party. I hope the leader of the Democrat Party would show some leadership in civility when it comes to addressing people who have served this country honorably and continue to do their best.

I yield back the remainder of my time and ask the votes on the Santorum and Murray amendments be stacked sequentially at a time so designated by the leaders.

I ask that Senator Snowe be added as a cosponsor to the Santorum amendment.

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Mr. SANTORUM. Mr. President, this is, in a sense, the identical vote we just cast. This is the Murray amendment, as amended by the Santorum-Hutchison-Craig amendment. I encourage my colleagues to vote for this amendment.

I again thank the Senator from Washington. As we said during the debate, she was right and we got bad information. The Senator from Idaho, the Senator from Texas, as well as cooperation on the other side of the aisle, have gotten to the bottom of this. We have a lot more work to do. This is a good first step, and I encourage an ``aye'' vote on the amendment.

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