BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Ms. AYOTTE. Mr. President, I rise to speak about a very important issue. It is a fundamental constitutional issue for this body and part of our duty in the Senate and the Congress; that is, to ensure next week the funding for the government which expires at the end of the month. With only 1 week until the current government funding runs out, it is our responsibility to work together to make sure that the government keeps running, that we do not disrupt people's lives, that we do not end up spending more money because we shut the government down to reopen it, and that we provide certainty with all of the challenges we face at home and, of course, the threats we face abroad.
An issue has come up that is a very important issue, and that is an organization called Planned Parenthood and holding Planned Parenthood accountable in the wake of deeply disturbing videos that discuss the appalling practice of harvesting the organs and body parts of unborn babies.
Like Americans across all political spectrums, I was just sick--sick to see the contents of recent videos that have been disclosed that show a callous disregard by officials at Planned Parenthood for the dignity of human life. These videos have shocked the conscience of people across our country because this organization does receive taxpayer funding. I understand why we have had an important debate in this body about redirecting this funding because of Planned Parenthood's actions and fully investigating what was revealed in these disturbing videos that show the practice of the harvesting of organs and body parts of unborn babies.
So I support the efforts of the Judiciary Committee to investigate these disturbing videos. I also do not believe it is appropriate that taxpayer funds should be used to fund a private organization that performs hundreds of thousands of abortions each year and that engages in the horrific practices that were shown in these videos.
That is why last month I joined a bipartisan majority of Senators in voting to redirect Federal funding from Planned Parenthood to community health centers that provide women's health services, including mammograms, cancer screenings, and contraceptives. In New Hampshire there are more than 30 community health centers, compared to 5 Planned Parenthood clinics.
But when we had this debate and vote on the Senate floor, we received only 53 votes in favor of redirecting this money from Planned Parenthood to community health centers which provide women's health services, falling well short of the 60-vote threshold required to advance this legislation in the Senate. Yet despite already having had a vote on this, which failed the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, there are some that are pushing to attach this issue to the funding of the government, even though when we had the vote here, we did not have the votes to get it passed in the Senate, and even though the President himself has explicitly said he would veto any bill that prohibits funding for Planned Parenthood or redirects that funding to community health centers.
In fact, the President is so dug in on funding for Planned Parenthood that he is prepared to let the government shut down over it. And those who are pushing the strategy, saying we should go forward with it anyway--they have not explained how we would obtain 67 votes in the Senate.
When we had the vote on it, we only got 53, not even enough to advance the legislation in the Senate, which requires 60. The President certainly knows that we do not have 67 votes in the Senate to override his veto. Nevertheless, those who are pushing the strategy to attach this to the government funding bill--this issue of redirecting the funding--also know that there are not 60 votes in the Senate, never mind 67 to override a Presidential veto. So the result is that if we passed the bill, even if we could get the 60 votes, the President is sure to veto it, and the 67 votes are not there to override his veto.
In the end, we are heading for an imminent government shutdown if this is not resolved. Everyone who looks at this issue knows the reality of where the votes lie. In fact, those on my side of the aisle who have been pushing the strategy of pass the bill, send it to the President for his veto, I have asked them the question: Let's assume we get the 60 votes to do that; first of all, how do we get those 60 votes? I have not received an answer to that question. Then I have asked the next question: Even if we could get those 60 votes to pass it out of the Senate and to send this to the President's desk with a government funding bill that redirects the money to Planned Parenthood over his opposition and he vetoes it, where do the 67 votes come from? I have not received an answer to that.
So I am here on the floor today to say: I am tired of the political games. I am tired of the President's game on this, that he is so dug in on this issue that he would be willing to let the government shut down. I am tired of the people on my side of the aisle who are pushing this strategy even though they know they do not have the votes to have it pass the Senate, and they certainly don't have the votes to override a Presidential veto, so, therefore, they cannot answer the question: What is the end game for success here, even if you feel as passionately about these issues as we all do?
So here we are again with the political posturing on both sides. I don't want to play this game anymore. I think it is too important that we not relive the movie of where we were in 2013 when the government shut down because I asked the very same question then, when the issue was defunding ObamaCare. I asked the question: How does this end? How does it end successfully to defund ObamaCare? How does it end without shutting down the government? I never received an answer then, and I have not received an answer now from those who are pushing this strategy.
We saw the movie in 2013. I do not think we should relive that movie. Let's remember what happened. When you shut the government
down and you reopen it, it actually costs us more money. So if you care about the fiscal state of the country, let's not waste money shutting down the government with no results. You think about the economy and the disruption in people's lives. I remember my constituents calling me on the phone, because I was answering my phones. I remember people who saved for years for a family vacation to our national parks and could not participate in that family vacation and lost the money they had sunk into it for years in their savings for their big family vacation because people were pushing to keep the government shut down, even though they had no strategy for achieving a result on it.
I remember the uncertainty and the hardship for working families and our military. Even though we keep our national security piece open during a government shutdown, there is so much uncertainty about whom that covers and whom it doesn't. When we look at the threats we are facing around the world right now, we do not need uncertainty when it comes to those who keep us safe at home on the law enforcement end, on our intel, on our military, and all the civilian workforce that supports them and makes sure they can do their job every single day.
The bottom line is, in 2013 we did not get a result, the funding for ObamaCare continued, the government was shut down, it cost us more money and disruption. We never got an answer then for how that would end successfully. Here we find ourselves again, the same group of people pushing the same strategy on the Planned Parenthood issue, saying we should shut the government down again, even though they cannot answer the question: How do we get to 60 votes? How do we get to 67 votes so that you can actually achieve a result here? I think the answer is that they don't know the answer, because we all know where the votes are. It is not going to happen.
So I am here on the floor because I feel strongly. I agree with the National Right to Life on this. In a recent op-ed, the National Right to Life rightly points out that pursuing this shutdown strategy could actually undermine efforts to hold Planned Parenthood accountable, primarily by shifting public attention in the political blame game that would result inevitably from the shutdown. The National Right to Life also cited a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which found that the majority of Federal funds flowing to Planned Parenthood would not even be temporarily interrupted if the government shut down because the funds flow from mandatory spending programs like Medicaid rather than the congressional funding process, which is the discretionary spending piece impacted by what we will vote on regarding the continuing resolution.
Again, this was the same issue that actually came up in 2013 when it came to the tactics of trying to defund ObamaCare without a strategy for success. Right now we are playing a game of chicken. It is a dangerous game. We already know as we stand here where the votes are and what it takes to keep the government open. Yet, as I understand it, we are going to be taking another vote on Thursday so we can show the proponents of those who are again seeking to attach the Planned Parenthood redirecting-of-funding issue to the government funding bill that, guess what, we already know the answer to this. We don't have the votes. We are not going to get to 60 in the Senate, never mind the 67 it would take to override a Presidential veto.
So we all know what it is going to take to keep the government open. I think we should have that vote now, instead of continuing to have the political show votes that show the people where we know the votes already are on this issue. That means a clean funding bill now, so that we are not wasting time, so that we are not bringing ourselves closer to the brink of a shutdown.
So in good conscience, while I fully support redirecting the money from Planned Parenthood to community health centers who serve women, I cannot in good conscience participate again in this process, one that would ensure we come closer to the brink of a shutdown, when I have not heard a strategy for success.
I think the American people are owed an answer to the question: What is your strategy of success if you are threatening to shut down the government? I would ask the same of President Obama: If this is such an important issue to you that you are willing also to participate in this exercise of threatening a shutdown, is it that important to you given that the money can be redirected to community health centers that provide services to women?
That said, it is time to quit the games on both sides of the aisle. I came here to solve problems. That means we need to address this issue now. We should have the vote on the clean funding bill now.
We should make sure we keep the government running, given the challenges we are facing at home and abroad, so that we do not have shutdown 2 and relive the movie we saw in 2013, and that was not a good one for the country.
I hope we will take the vote right now instead of continuing to play political games on both sides of the aisle while the clock ticks down. This is a very important issue for our country, and I am prepared right now to vote for a bill that will keep the government funded.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Ms. AYOTTE. Mr. President, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee--headed by Chairman Johnson and Ranking Member Carper--had a very important hearing where we heard from whistleblowers from the VA, and then afterwards we heard from VA officials and representatives from the inspector general's office. The issue of how we treat those who have served the country is so critical to who we are as a nation. Yet, over the last year, we have learned of shocking failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and today's testimony, unfortunately, was no different in terms of how whistleblowers were retaliated against at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Instead of a culture that encourages people to come forward when things go wrong, people who come forward when things go wrong are treated badly and also face consequences as far as their employment, and that is wrong.
Over the last year, we have seen shocking failures, including veterans being denied care after being placed on secret wait lists, experiencing extended delays in benefits, and endless wait times for repeals, reviews, or action on claims.
Recently, we also learned that as of last year, the VA had 867,000 pending health care enrollment records. That is almost 1 million records without a final determination status--some from decades ago. Nearly one-third of the veterans who had applied to the VA for care have now been reported as having died. Additionally, the VA staff has deleted 10,000 transaction records, but the reasons are undocumented. These failures are outrageous, and that word is used a lot around here, but this truly does define what is happening in our VA--outrageous.
Our veterans, who have served and sacrificed so much for our country, deserve the very best care and support we can give them. The VA has fallen short time and time again in meeting that goal.
The bipartisan VA reform bill, enacted last summer, represents an important step in increasing accountability and mismanagement at the department, and also giving our veterans the choice of care in their communities rather than waiting in line. That is very important to my State, New Hampshire, where, unfortunately, we don't have a full-service veterans hospital. There is so much more work to be done on that front; however, we continue to hear about reports of bureaucratic delays and failures at the VA, such as overprescribing opiates, bonuses paid to employees involved in serious misconduct, enrollment record mayhem, and inflated claims of VA employees being held accountable and fired. Unfortunately, we still can't get a number, even after all the wait-list scandals where veterans literally died while waiting for care.
I have a few recent headlines about the VA. In the Chicago Tribune, January 9, ``Veterans: VA hospital nicknamed `Candy Land' because painkillers given out freely.''
Arizona Republic, February 13, ``Whistle-blowers: VA still endangering suicidal vets.''
Washington Post, March 9, ``Veteran Affairs manager pokes fun at mental health issues with photo of elf begging for Xanax.''
Associated Press, April 9, ``Veterans hospital wait times haven't improved.''
Stars and Stripes, April 13, ``Whistleblowers say retaliation unabated year into VA scandal.''
The Washington Post on May 14, ``Veterans Affairs improperly spent $6 billion annually, senior official says.''
In light of all of the issues that have been raised with our VA, can you imagine that we are in a place where there is no permanent inspector general who has been appointed by the President to serve in that important watchdog position for the Veterans' Administration after all of the issues I just cited in this Chamber? There are many more issues that I didn't even have on this list.
The inspector general position at the Veterans' Administration has been vacant since December of 2013. That is 631 days--631 days that the President has failed to appoint someone to ensure that there is critical oversight and transparency at the Veterans' Administration. In fact, we have just had acting individuals in that position. We have not had a permanent watchdog in that position. In light of everything we have been through, we have had 631 days without adequate accountability; 631 days without permanent oversight leadership; 631 days without a permanent watchdog to investigate scandals that have tarnished the promises we made to our veterans which they earned by defending our great Nation; 631 days without the President even submitting a nomination to fill this empty position. That is unacceptable.
We need the President to step up and appoint an inspector general to be the watchdog for the Veterans' Administration so they can have a continuity of leadership. There is no more important oversight issue right now.
I have written the President, along with Members on both sides of the aisle. We have repeatedly called on the President to make a nomination for this inspector general position, and we know that--through the process--names of individuals who are qualified to serve in this position have actually been submitted to the President's desk. Both sides of the aisle in this body agree on this issue. Our desire--on a bipartisan basis--is to make sure that those who have defended, served, and answered the call of duty for our Nation receive the very best care for what they have done to defend our freedom. Yet, after all the scandals and all the issues and challenges that our veterans face, can you imagine leaving this particular position open for 631 days?
I am, again, in this Chamber going to call on the President, and I know that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, whom I have worked with on this issue, agree that it is time for the President of the United States to nominate a qualified individual--he has had many names submitted to him--to serve in this critical watchdog position as the permanent inspector general for the VA with the full authority to conduct the investigations that need to be conducted on issues that have been raised repeatedly about the Veterans' Administration.
What is clear from the testimony we heard today at the homeland security committee hearing is that we have so much more work to do to ensure accountability at the Veterans' Administration and to ensure that our veterans get the very best of what they deserve and have earned by defending our Nation.
What is clear is that the IG council has done its job and nominated individuals for the President to consider for this inspector general position.
I am now calling on the President: Mr. President, please nominate a qualified individual to be a permanent VA inspector general in order to protect our veterans.
Mr. President, 631 days is already way too long, and our veterans should not have to wait a day longer to have this position filled. This important agency needs a watchdog that is there to serve them.
I thank the Presiding Officer.
With that, I yield the floor.
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT