CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET FOR THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT FOR THE FISCAL YEAR 2006 -- (Senate - March 16, 2005)
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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise to discuss an issue on which I hope we can find common ground. Today, we have thousands of brave men and women risking their lives for us halfway around the world. At home, we have millions more who were equally courageous in defending our freedom during generations past. When it comes to honoring these soldiers and these veterans, there is never any shortage of words and praise from leaders of both parties, and there should not be.
I commend the previous speaker, the outstanding Senator from Idaho, who is also chairman of the Veterans Committee, for his deep concern and regard for our veterans. But I have to contest some of the statements that were made because, unfortunately, based on our analysis, this budget has a very real and unacceptable shortage of funding for the benefits and health care that our heroes have earned.
Make no mistake, these are not just complaints coming from Washington; these are complaints we are hearing from veterans all across the country--in Illinois, Washington, Hawaii, and Idaho.
Senator Ensign's amendment increases the veterans health care budget by $410 million. That is a modest improvement and to be commended, compared to the original budget offered by the President. Yet, these dollars, I should point out, come directly out of important international programs that fund child health care, global AIDS assistance, disaster, famine assistance, and more. We can have a further discussion as to whether it is wise for us to rob Peter to pay Paul. But even if we go ahead and take this money from these vital programs and place it into veterans, it is still $2.5 billion short of sufficiently funding veterans health care services.
That is why I am joining my colleagues on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, ranking member AKAKA and Senator Murray, to support an amendment to increase funding for veterans health care by $2.85 billion.
Today, the state of care for America's veterans is not worthy of their service to this country. There are roughly 480,000 compensation and pension claims still unprocessed. This budget provides for 113 new employees to help deal with this backlog.
There are thousands of veterans who cannot afford to get the health care they need, and I am glad to see the Ensign amendment eliminates the copayments. But the budget in front of us still tells veterans who make as little as $30,000 a year they are too wealthy to enroll in the VA health care system.
There are VA hospitals on the brink of closing down around the country. But this budget cuts $351 million in funding for veterans nursing homes and eliminates more than $100 million in State grants that are desperately needed by VA facilities. When the troops who are fighting bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan return home as veterans, what kind of care will they find? Already we know that soldiers are coming home with post traumatic stress disorder, with traumatic brain injury that could lead to epilepsy, and with conditions that may result in over 100,000 soldiers requiring mental health treatment when they come home. If we cannot care for the veterans who are already here, how will we take care of the veterans who will be returning in a few years?
I urge my colleagues to join me in sending veterans the right message. Our amendment will provide funds for VA staff so veterans who are waiting to file disability claims are not waiting months to have their case heard. It will provide adequate funding so that veterans of all incomes can access the VA system, as was promised.
When it comes to America's veterans, it is not only our patriotic duty to care, it is also our moral duty. When our troops return from battle, we should welcome them with the promise of opportunity, not the threat of poverty.
Senator Ensign's amendment is a modest improvement over the President's original budget. But as Senator Akaka has already stated, it still leaves the veterans short. It is time to reassess our priorities. A budget is more than a series of numbers on a page; it is the embodiment of our values. The President and everyone in this Chamber never hesitate to praise the service of our veterans and acknowledge the debt we owe them for their service, and I commend my colleagues and the President for that. But this budget does not reflect that praise or repay that debt. Neither does the budget resolution on the floor today.
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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to urge my colleagues to support the Byrd amendment to restore funding to Amtrak--a critical mode of transportation in Illinois.
I want to emphasize that there are serious inefficiencies with Amtrak operations. I do not support the restoration of Amtrak funding because I believe in a return to the status quo. I do believe, however, that the elimination of all funding, as the President has proposed, and as this budget resolution reflects, will lead Amtrak not to reform but to ruin.
A strong national rail system is not just a convenience for travelers. It also serves other important national objectives, such as ensuring multiple travel options in the event of regional or national emergency, reducing our heavy dependence on foreign oil, and improving air quality. In recent years, Amtrak has increased the number of trains it operates and has achieved a record level of ridership, with more than 25 million passengers using Amtrak last year.
In Illinois alone, more than 3 million people use one or many of the 50 daily Illinois trains, including business leaders traveling to and from smaller cities and towns; tourists who visit Illinois attractions, and students who attend world-class Illinois colleges and universities.
Responding to calls for reform, Amtrak's leadership has streamlined its operating costs, engaged in ongoing discussions to evaluate current policies and increase efficiency, and created a strategic plan for future improvements. The proposed cuts in Federal funds would cripple Amtrak beyond repair.
We cannot--and should not--allow that to occur. I urge my colleagues to support the Byrd amendment and restore Federal funding for Amtrak to this year's budget.
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