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Mr. VITTER. I rise to talk about two very important issues for the country and for Louisiana. The first is fixing the national flood insurance system, getting it right. The good news is I think we are well on a path to doing that effectively. The second is veterans medical clinics, two of which are in Louisiana. They have been held up for completely bureaucratic reasons and aren't moving forward as they need to serve the veterans in Lafayette and Lake Charles, LA, and in about 25 other locations around the country.
First, flood insurance. Only a couple of days ago the House passed by a huge margin, over 300 votes, a strong bill to permanently fix the National Flood Insurance Program. Those aspects of the so-called Biggert-Waters act passed over 1 year ago but are unworkable, clearly creating problems on the ground.
This is great news, because unless we fix those very real problems, we would have major problems on our hands in the National Flood Insurance Program, not only in Louisiana, not only in Florida, and not only in the Superstorm Sandy area, but in every State in the country--every State. It is not a question of if these issues are coming to your State, it is a question of when and exactly to what extent.
Over 1 year ago, we passed the Biggert-Waters act. That was an important reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program. It also included reforms, and many of those reforms needed to happen to stabilize the financing of the program.
What no one understood adequately then, however, is that those well-intended reforms, in practice, in implementation by FEMA, would lead to unsustainable, completely unaffordable rate increases in a significant number of cases.
That only began to be understood in the months after the bill was passed as FEMA started to implement it, as FEMA came to homeowners, came to State authorities, came to Members of Congress, and began to lay out some of the rates we would see in certain areas.
I am not talking about modest rate increases. We need modest rate increases to stabilize the financing of the program. I am talking about completely unaffordable rate increases in some cases--flood insurance rates going from $300 a year to $11,000 a year or $19,000 a year or $26,000 a year on a modest middle-class home and on a middle-class family that followed the rules every step of the way. We can't allow that to stand.
First, it is fundamentally unfair. As I said, these middle-class families followed the rules every step of the way. They built to the right elevation when they built their homes, never let their premiums lapse, and never let their insurance lapse.
In that context, for them to be hit with truly unaffordable rate increases--increases that could literally cause them to have to walk away from their home in some significant number of cases and not be able to afford to stay there--is just plain wrong.
Secondly, it is completely counterproductive, because one of the ways we have stabilized the National Flood Insurance Program fiscally is to grow the program, to have more folks paying premiums, and to have more folks covered, not fewer. This aspect of Biggert-Waters, which would lead to truly unaffordable rate increases in a significant number of cases, is unworkable from the very vantage point of the goal of Biggert-Waters to stabilize the system. So we can't let that stand for that reason either.
The good news is, because of those very real problems, both the Senate, and now the House, have come together in a major bipartisan way to fix the issue. The Senate acted about 1 month ago passing meaningful legislation. I was an original coauthor and a strong supporter. As I said a few minutes ago, the House acted two nights ago--Mardi Gras night in Louisiana terms--to take strong action to fix this program.
The House bill is stronger and more significant in several respects, mostly because the reforms in the House bill are permanent. It is not a timeout, as the Senate bill was. It is a permanent fix that creates a much higher degree of certainty and permanence immediately.
Also, the House bill is fully paid for with a modest premium increase on everybody's premiums--very modest, completely affordable--to make sure that all of these changes are paid for. Because of these aspects of the House bill, because of the permanent nature of the fix, the fact that we create certainty and predictability immediately moving forward for homeowners and real estate markets is actually the preferable approach.
I urge all of us in the Senate to take up that bill at the soonest possible moment. Specifically, I urge the distinguished majority leader to put it on the floor, to create time on the floor, so we can deal with the House bill absolutely as soon as possible.
I know there will be some attempt to obtain unanimous consent to pass the House bill immediately. Of course, I will consent; I am all for that. But, realistically, I don't think that is going to happen on the Senate floor. The Senate bill had some objectors, the Senate bill had some opponents, and so does the House bill.
Realistically, I urge the majority leader to create the time on the Senate floor to take this up and move through the process absolutely as quickly and as expeditiously as possible. That is the way it is actually going to work and that is the way it is actually going to happen.
I hope we can do that as early as next week. I strongly support our consideration of this bill on the Senate floor as early as next week.
The second national and Louisiana issue I want to discuss has to do with veterans and veterans' health care, which we have been talking about on the Senate floor for some time, specifically the need to move forward with 27 fully approved, fully authorized, VA community-based clinics that have been stalled because of bureaucratic problems. Again, these clinics are around the country: two in Louisiana, one in Lafayette, one in Lake Charles. These clinics have been approved by the VA and have been in their plan for some time. They are fully authorized. We thought they were fully paid for until, first, the VA made some bureaucratic mistakes to delay the Lake Charles and Lafayette clinics in particular; and then, out of the blue, the CBO changed the way they score all of these clinics, all of these issues, and created another bureaucratic hurdle.
Again, the good news is we came together in a bipartisan way and have a solution to those purely bureaucratic hurdles so that all of these clinics can move forward expeditiously. The House specifically passed a bill that would take care of these bureaucratic hurdles. They passed it on the consent calendar by a whopping bipartisan margin.
So I come to the floor urging all of us to do the same. Specifically, I have an amendment to the bill that also makes it even more fiscally sustainable by having a pay-for for any conceivable cost to this bill, and that is what my amendment would do.
This VA clinic legislation was in the Sanders veterans bill last week and it was in the Burr alternative. It was in both the Democratic and the Republican veterans packages. Neither of those packages passed. The Sanders bill was defeated on a budget point of order, which I supported because I don't think it is properly paid for and is sustainable both in terms of our budget and, even more important for veterans, how the veterans system works and handles its current patient load. The Burr bill never even got a vote.
We have disagreements about those larger packages. Those are real, substantial disagreements, but in the midst of that I would hope we can agree to what we can agree on, and these VA clinics certainly fall into that category. We have cleared all objections to this VA clinic piece specifically. We have addressed all issues having to do with these VA clinics, in part through my amendment at the desk. The only possible objection I know of is the fact that a larger package is not passing.
I understand there are big arguments about that larger package. Those are legitimate differences of opinion. I don't think that should stand in the way of our agreeing to what we can agree to and moving forward with an important piece of the puzzle for veterans health care--these 27 community-based clinics around the country.
In that spirit I will be asking for a unanimous consent agreement whereby we would take up the House-passed bill. Again, this House-passed bill was actually on the consent calendar, passed with a whopping bipartisan majority. We would adopt my amendment at the desk, which addresses some fiscal concerns with the bill, and we would then pass it through the process. This would be our coming together and agreeing to what we can agree on. That is what the American people want us to do as we work on all other aspects of health care and veterans' benefits covered by both the Burr and the Sanders bill debated last week.
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Mr. VITTER. I find that very regretful. Of course I will continue to work with the Senator from Vermont. Of course I will continue to work on that larger package, which I have been actively involved in for some time. I will continue that. But basically the Senator from Vermont is holding a very tiny piece of this hostage--a tiny piece that will have no impact whether it is in or out in terms of passage of that broader bill.
What is happening is we have a piece that on its substance, on the substance of the clinics themselves, no one objects to; a piece that passed the House by a huge overwhelmingly bipartisan majority. Yet it is not going to pass here today or perhaps anytime soon because it is held hostage over larger fights.
I will continue to work on that broader veterans piece. I support a broader veterans bill, if it is styled the right way and if it is fiscally responsible. I support the Burr alternative. I will continue to look for common ground between that Burr alternative and the Sanders bill. But whether this clinic piece is in or out of that discussion will have zero impact on passing that piece. I honestly think it will have zero impact.
I find it very unfortunate we can't get this done in the meantime; that what my colleague considers the perfect is now the enemy of the very good, and we can't serve veterans by coming together on what we do agree on and acting in the meantime.
With that, I urge my distinguished colleague from Vermont to reconsider over time, as we work on this larger veterans bill, because we could pass this today. The House would pass the slightly modified version immediately, and we would be moving on with 27 community-based clinics around the country which veterans in all of those communities desperately need.
Additionally, I wish to thank Senator Inhofe for his active cooperation in moving these clinics forward.
Mr. President, my good friend, the senior Senator from Oklahoma, is in support of vital legislation that recently passed the House of Representatives, H.R. 3521 the Department of Veterans Affairs Major Medical Facility Lease Authorization Act of 2013. The legislation authorizes 27 Department of Veterans Affairs clinics across this country including much needed clinics in Lafayette and Lake Charles, LA.
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Mr. VITTER. Yes, it is absolutely critical for Louisiana veterans as well that both of the clinics in Lafayette and Lake Charles are authorized and finally built. To clarify, both of the Louisiana clinics are not new projects. They would actually be nearing completion, but because of bureaucratic mistakes committed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, they have faced significant delays. Two years ago, due to an unexpected change by the Congressional Budget Office--CBO--in how it estimates the cost of VA clinics, these two vital clinics were then stripped out of a VA authorization bill. Veterans in Louisiana have waited long enough. It is time for the United States Senate to act. This legislation makes it so veterans are not forced to drive a 100 miles to receive much needed services.
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Mr. VITTER. This legislation makes important reforms to the VA leasing process taking into account CBO concerns, and it has received vast bipartisan support in the House passing 346-1. I urge my colleagues to provide the same support for our veterans in the Senate and pass this legislation now by unanimous consent.
With that, I yield floor.
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