Regarding the news reports this week on the NSA collecting phone records, I have learned that in this case, NSA is not "monitoring" phone conversations, but rather collecting data about phone calls. This metadata collection is an authorized activity of the NSA that is being done with the approval of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. I voted along with a majority of the Senate to give NSA this authority, and I believe this data collection is helping to protect the American people. I would also remind folks that every action of the NSA has to be approved by the courts every 90 days and are under congressional and White House oversight.
Atlanta VA Medical Center
On Thursday, in response to the Inspector General (IG) report that describes egregious mismanagement at the Atlanta VA Medical Center (VAMC), Senator Chambliss and I sent two letters to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki demanding answers to the report that linked three recent suicides to these deficiencies.
In our letters, Senator Chambliss as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and I, as a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, asked the VA to follow up on reported problems with inpatient and contracted outpatient mental health care at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. We requested that the VA to provide information on its progress to correct the problems identified by the IG report to ensure that veterans do not fall through cracks in the future. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, joined us in sending the letters to Shinseki.
We wrote that the IG report is "troublesome due to the number of veterans experiencing mental health conditions, the number of veteran suicides, and the lack of access to mental health services at VA medical centers." The senators expressed that they "are deeply concerned that veterans are not receiving quality mental health services."
We also stated, "With estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide each day, it is vital that we address problems at all of the VA's mental health facilities and their partners The men and women who have bravely served our country deserve better care than what was described in the IG report related to mental health services provided by the Atlanta VAMC."
Comprehensive Student Loan Protection Act
On Thursday, the Senate voted on, S.1003, the Comprehensive Student Loan Protection Act that I co-sponsored and that would have been a permanent solution that would lower and fix interest rates for 100 percent of newly issued student loans. Specifically, it would have required, for each academic year, all newly-issued Stafford, Graduate PLUS, and Parent PLUS loans be set to the U.S. Treasury 10-year borrowing rate plus 3 percentage points. It would lower the interest rate for this coming school year for all newly issued federal student loans to a fixed rate of 4.75 percent, based on the May 15 auction rate of 1.75 percent. On Wednesday, I spoke to Chris Jansing on MSNBC's "Jansing & Co." regarding this issue. Unfortunately, the legislation failed.
I am very disappointed by the outcome of this vote. Our proposal is fair, equitable and treats everyone alike by lowering interest rates on 100 percent of student federal loans at a fixed rate. It's the right way to address the student loan program, and it's unfortunate that Senate Democrats blocked a bill that takes an approach very similar to the president's student loan proposal. It is critically important that we reach an agreement quickly so that students will have access to affordable loans come July 1. It is irresponsible for anyone to play politics on this important issue.
Every Child Ready for College or Career Act
In other education-related news, this week, I joined my several of my colleagues on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, including U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Richard Burr, R-N.C., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to introduce the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act to fix the law known as No Child Left Behind. We believe this legislation would move Washington back to states decisions about whether schools and teachers are succeeding.
Over the last decade, No Child Left Behind has made major strides in improving students' education in the areas of math and reading, but our work is far from over. It is critically important that Congress acts quickly to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I am proud to join my Republican colleagues in introducing this legislation because it continues to build upon past progress, implements changes based on feedback from administrators, teachers and parents and allows states and local school systems to make choices that best suit their students' needs.
In Other News
Some time ago, I was the first U.S. senator to call for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to resign, following the "Fast and Furious" scandal. I mentioned this week that I regretted my vote to confirm Eric Holder to the post. When I'm wrong, I like to admit is, just as Eric Holder ought to do regarding his involvement in investigations of the press that have recently come to light. I appeared on Fox News' "On the Record with Greta van Susteren" on this subject on Monday night. Additionally, I appeared on Fox Business to discuss the IRS' targeting of certain political groups for additional screening.
What's on Tap?
Next week, the Senate will vote on final passage of the farm bill. We will also begin debate on reforming the immigration system. For my full position on immigration, please visit my website for my issue statement on immigration.