Veterans' Benefits Enhancement Act

Floor Speech

By:  Mitch McConnell
Date: April 22, 2008
Location: Washington, DC


VETERANS' BENEFITS ENHANCEMENT ACT -- (Senate - April 22, 2008)

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, of course the bill is not being held up, and of course the majority does not need permission from us to take up the bill. Today we will, in fact, vote on the cloture motion to proceed to the Veterans' Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007. It is my belief cloture should be invoked and will be invoked.

There is actually much to commend in this bill. It will improve the lives of our veterans by supplementing the level of assistance for disabled veterans for the purchase of automobiles and increasing assistance for those veterans who need to modify their homes to accommodate their disabilities.

I wish to recognize with admiration my colleague from North Carolina, the ranking member of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and thank him for his hard work on this bill. Yesterday, he made clear that he will offer a substitute that seeks to correct the one glaring flaw contained within S. 1315, a provision that would divert $221 million over the next 10 years to create a special pension for Filipino veterans of the Second World War living in the Philippines who have no service-connected disability. That money, of course, would be diverted at the expense of American veterans living in America. The Senator from North Carolina spoke eloquently about the fact that diverting these resources from our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan represents misplaced priorities, and I agree with him.

My expectation is the Senate will have a healthy debate concerning this provision. Senators on my side of the aisle will have ample opportunity to amend the committee bill so we can have a bill that will pass with bipartisan support and be signed into law. It is my hope we can work together on this bill and produce another strong, bipartisan achievement for our veterans. I expect that to happen certainly in the very near future. We will have an opportunity in our conference at noon to discuss going forward, but we anticipate moving forward with the Burr amendment early in the process. I think we are going to be able to get a strong, bipartisan accomplishment in the very near future in the Senate.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The majority leader.

Mr. REID. Mr. President, I want the world to hear what the Republican leader just said: We are not holding up the bill. That simply is without any basis of fact. That is why we are going to vote at noon on being able to move to the bill. In years past, it was done automatically. Rarely did we have to file a motion to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed. It is Orwellian, what my friend just said. Of course they are holding up the bill. And we have asked other times to move to this legislation, as far back as November 2007.

So, Mr. President, I now ask unanimous consent that following morning business, we move to the bill, we vitiate the need to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed, that all germane amendments would be in order--and certainly what Senator Burr said he wanted to do would be totally germane. It is a striking provision.

I ask unanimous consent that following morning business, the Senate move to the bill that is before the Senate.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Is there objection?

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, reserving the right to object, I really think any observers will find all of this quite silly, really. We are going to discuss the measure at noon. Many in my conference are not on the Veterans' Affairs Committee and have not had an opportunity to hear from Senator Burr about this issue. Yesterday was a no-vote day. Members were not around. We are going to discuss the matter at noon.

I already indicated to my good friend the majority leader that we are going to be able to move forward, I think, with dispatch on this issue, and we are going to get a bipartisan accomplishment. No amount of trying to steamroll the minority into giving up its rights is going to work. Maybe that is one of the reasons this Congress has a lower approval than the President of the United States. My good friend the majority leader never misses an opportunity to talk about the President not being very popular. Every time in the future the majority leader wants to bring up the President's popularity, I will bring up the popularity of this new majority which makes the President's popularity look really good.

What I think the American people would like for us to do is to quit this silly sparring back and forth, and finger-pointing, and legislate. We have a very good chance to begin this week with a strong bipartisan accomplishment, and I think we ought to get about it. As soon as lunch is out of the way and Senator Burr has had an opportunity to brief our Members on this measure, with which many of them are not yet familiar, we will sit down, as we always do, the majority leader and I, with smiles on our faces, and figure out how to go forward. And I think we will be able to get there in the relatively near future.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Is there objection?

Mr. McCONNELL. I object.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Objection is heard.

Mr. REID. So that it is very clear, the statement of the Republican leader was untrue. He can talk all he wants about finger-pointing. All we want to do is legislate. That is what we want to do. And it would seem to me, as this legislation has been pending for 9 months--reported out of the committee 9 months ago--that since we are dealing with the veterans, the people for whom we want to do the very best we can because they deserve it, that in 9 months the Republican caucus would have been able to focus on veterans and health care and not wait until today, April 22--or whatever today is, 9 months after the legislation was reported out of the committee--to determine what is in the legislation. Senators need to be briefed on how to take care of our soldiers medically? I think that is without any foundation.

I will also say this, Mr. President: I feel very good about my job as a Senator. I am very grateful to the people of Nevada for allowing me to serve in the Senate. But I am never going to come to the floor and denigrate this body, as my Republican friend obviously wants to do. The rating of the Senate, over the history of the country, the rating of the Congress is tied to the President. If the President is unpopular, the Congress is unpopular, the city council is unpopular. If you have a popular President, everybody feels good about the Government itself. So I will never come to the Senate or anyplace else and denigrate my job and those of my 99 colleagues. I think we have important responsibilities, and I think we should live up to those in a manner that is best in keeping with the Senate tradition.

I came here this morning to state a fact. I want to legislate on behalf of the Senate on legislation dealing with the medical care of our veterans, and it is being held up by the Republicans. That is clear. That is what I said, and I stand on that.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Republican leader.

Mr. McCONNELL. At the risk of prolonging this a little longer, I don't think, at the end of the day, anybody in the country is going to believe we are obstructing this bill. This is a serious effort to legislate. Senator Burr has taken it very seriously. He has an important amendment to be offered, which will be offered later today. The Senate will have an opportunity to consider it.

Look, the way you get things done in the Senate is on a bipartisan basis, and the rules around here give the minority an opportunity to be involved. This is not the House of Representatives. I wish we had been able to get more done last year, but one of the reasons we didn't is because we had 34 Iraq votes. Some of my friends in the other conference told me last year that any week they weren't voting on Iraq was a bad week. We spent an awful lot of time on sense-of-the-Senate resolutions on Iraq last year.

Floor time is at a premium in the Senate, as the majority leader used to say repeatedly when he was the leader of the Democratic Party and in the minority. The Senate is not the House. Things don't move as speedily. Most observers of the Senate understand that. By Senate standards, this bill is going to move forward in relatively rapid order after the rights of the minority to offer amendments have been protected.

So I don't know what this little back and forth this morning is all about because I do think we are going to have an opportunity to get a bipartisan accomplishment in the very near future.

I yield the floor.

Mr. REID. What this is all about is the truth. That is what it is all about.

Senator Durbin, assistant majority leader, on November 8, 2007, said this: This is Senator Durbin speaking, Mr. President.

I ask unanimous consent that the Senate may proceed to the consideration of calendar No. 336, S. 1315, at any time determined by the majority leader following consultation with the Republican leader; that when the bill is considered, the only amendments in order to the bill, other than the committee-reported amendment, be first-degree amendments that are relevant to the subject matter of the bill and that they be subject to relevant second-degree amendments; that upon disposition of all amendments, the committee-reported substitute amendment, as amended, if amended, be agreed to; the bill, as amended, be read the third time, passed, and the motion to reconsider be laid upon the table.

The Presiding Officer asked: Is there objection?

The Republican side: Objection.

The objections to this go back months. So what is this about today, the Republican leader says? It is about the truth. It is about the Republicans stalling everything that comes up--everything--and then to have the audacity to come to the floor and say: We are not stalling anything.

We should have been on this bill a long time ago.

And during the period of time the Republican leader complains we were having numerous Iraq votes, we were trying to change the course in Iraq, Mr. President, because it needed changing, and it still does.

We have been here I don't know how many seconds this morning, but every second we have been here we have been spending $5,000 in Iraq--$5,000 a second or $12 billion a month. During the period of time he complains about our offering amendments related to the war in Iraq, our troops were getting killed at the rate of more than one a day. Tens of thousands have been wounded. A third of them are missing eyes. Their minds aren't good. One-fifth of them have brain problems--injuries to their brains. We have more than 3,000 double amputees and thousands and thousands of single amputees. We have an obligation to the American people to talk about the war in Iraq, and we are going to continue to do that.

So we don't apologize to anyone for the votes we took on Iraq. The first many years of this war--a 6-year war now--the war went along with the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate doing nothing about the war except patting the President on the back. We have not done that. We have been critical of the operation of the war in Iraq, but we have done everything we can to support our troops. We were the first to call for more body armor for the troops. We were the first to call for up-arming the vehicles so they wouldn't be killed as easily in those vehicles. We have done everything we can to support the troops. We have done everything we can to change the course of the war in Iraq.

The President has not allowed us to change the course of the war in Iraq, and we are here today for the truth. The truth is, we are trying to legislate for the American people and change the status quo. The Republicans want to maintain the status quo.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The Republican leader.

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, with all due respect to my good friend, the majority leader, the American people are giving Congress such low approval ratings principally because of the rhetoric and the tone and the feeling that we can't accomplish anything.

I don't know why, on this particular Tuesday morning, at about the time we are going to go to a bill on which we could achieve an important bipartisan accomplishment, we want to engage in this kind of rancorous debate. We will have plenty of highly contentious issues to come before us. That is the nature of the legislative process. And certainly we have spirited debates in the Senate. But on the measure that we are about to go to later today, I think there will be very little difference of opinion, and at the end of the process we are likely to have a bipartisan accomplishment that we can all feel good about.

So I would hope we could improve our moods and attitudes this week as we go forward and see if we can't accomplish something important for the veterans of our country.

I yield the floor.