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Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act--Motion to Proceed

Location: Washington, DC




Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I had hoped at this time to come to the floor to vote on an amendment that I introduced with Senator TIM JOHNSON and other colleagues, to make sure that veterans health care funding is, in fact, secured and stable for the future through an amendment which was supported by the American Legion--by many groups--the Disabled American Veterans, Blind Veterans of America, Jewish War Veterans of the USA, AMVETS, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Vietnam Veterans--all of whom want us to pass the Stabenow amendment which would make veterans health care funding mandatory, reliable, rather than having the situation we are in with the VA coming to us with a shortfall right now and asking for emergency funding, then a debate on what we are going to do for next year.

This is a very important amendment. It was pending prior to the vote on whether to invoke cloture, or to bring one level of debate to a close. If cloture had been invoked, this amendment would not be in order to be voted on. It would not have been in order, which is why, among other reasons, I voted not to proceed to invoking cloture.

There are a number of very important amendments that address the needs of our troops and their families, and other important issues about keeping us safe, securing nuclear materials, and other critical issues that were brought forward by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. These are amendments that need to be debated and included, in many instances, I would say, in the Defense reauthorization bill.

I am deeply disappointed that instead of proceeding with that work and getting it done in the next day or two, which we on this side of the aisle committed to do--our leader indicated we would commit to stay here and get that work done--instead of doing that, we saw the leadership put this aside and go to another issue that is of concern, I know, to the gun industry.

But we are at war. We are at war. We have men and women who need our best efforts, both those who are our troops serving us, as well as those who have a veteran's cap on right now who have served us in other wars or come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I want to speak to the Defense authorization bill which I strongly support, as well as the amendment that I hope we will return to when we come back to the Defense bill. I hope it will be very quickly because our men and women in the armed services are counting on us to get the work done and make it the best product we can possibly make it in terms of our national defense and the Defense reauthorization.

I do support the 2006 Defense authorization bill. I believe providing the equipment and resources our service men and women need to do their jobs is one of our most important responsibilities, which is why I wish we were debating that right now. This duty is especially important, as I said before, in a time of war. As everyone knows, our men and women in uniform are under tremendous stress as they either prepare to deploy or are currently serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am pleased the Defense reauthorization bill will authorize a 3.1-percent pay raise for military personnel and provide $70 million in additional funds for childcare and family assistance services for our military families.

I know Senator Murray has an additional amendment that relates to supporting families and childcare, which I think is very important.

Foremost in the minds of the men and women in uniform with whom I visit is the safety and security of their families. The bill that was pulled in order to have this debate on gun manufacturers is a bill that also authorizes $350 million in additional funding for up-armored vehicles, and $500 million for the Improvised Explosive Device Task Force.

It also continues our strong support for the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction programs that work to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists--an incredibly important effort that needs to be fully funded and receive our full commitment in every way.

These and other important provisions of this legislation will help make our country safer, make our troops safer and more capable as they serve us abroad.

I met with men and women from Michigan and across the country who are recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Some have suffered minor injuries that will not have a dramatic impact on the rest of their lives. Others, because of their injuries, will need years of rehabilitation and will face considerable obstacles as they return to their civilian lives. We owe these men and women our continued support so they can recover from their injuries and lead productive lives.

Today's soldiers are tomorrow's veterans. America has made a promise to these brave men and women to provide them with the care they need and deserve. They deserve the respect and support of a grateful nation when they return home. We also owe it to the men and women who have fought America's prior conflicts to maintain a place for them in the VA system so they can receive the care they need. We need to keep our promises to our veterans, young and old.

Today, I was privileged to participate in a press conference before the question came up about closing debate on these kinds of amendments. I was pleased that the current National Commander, Tom Cadmus, who is from Michigan, was there representing the American Legion. There were numerous other veterans organizations represented, as I listed earlier in my comments. All of them were saying to us: Let's stop this taking from one pocket to put in the other, taking from Peter to pay Paul, with our veterans. Let's keep the promise of veterans health care, period, and put veterans health care into a category that will allow that to happen on an ongoing basis.

I believe we must consider the ongoing costs of medical care for America's veterans as part of the continuing costs of national defense. The long-term legacy of the wars we fight today is the care for the men and women who have worn the uniform and been willing to pay the ultimate price for their Nation.

Senator Johnson and I and other colleagues are offering this amendment, which is currently still pending on the Department of Defense reauthorization, to provide full funding for VA health care to ensure that the VA has the resources necessary to provide quality health care in a timely manner to our Nation's sick and disabled veterans. The Stabenow-Johnson amendment provides guaranteed funding for America's veterans from two sources. First, the legislation provides an annual discretionary amount that would be locked in future years at the 2005 funding level. Second, in the future--and importantly--the VA would receive a sum of mandatory funding that would be adjusted year to year based on changes in demand from the VA health care system and the rate of health care inflation. In other words, it would depend on the number of veterans rather than this arbitrary debate now on inflationary increases.

We know the current formulation has not worked because the VA tells us that they are over $1 billion short now in funding for health care services for our veterans. I think that is absolutely inexcusable, and it needs to be fixed permanently. The amendment that we have offered creates a funding mechanism that will ensure that the VA has the resources it needs to provide a steady and reliable stream of funds to care for America's veterans, and it will also ensure that Congress will continue to be responsible for the oversight of the VA health care system, as it does with other Federal programs that are funded directly from the U.S. Treasury.

In fact, this amendment would bring funding for veterans health care into line with almost 90 percent of the health care funding that is provided by the Federal Government. Almost 90 percent of federally funded health care programs are in the mandatory category, not discretionary. Why in the world would we say to our veterans they don't deserve the same kind of treatment in terms of the Federal budget for mandatory spending that other programs receive, such as Medicare and Medicaid?

The amendment also requires a review in 2 years by the Comptroller General to determine whether adequate funding for veterans health care was achieved. Depending on the outcome of this review, Congress would have the opportunity to make changes to the law to ensure that veterans receive the care they deserve.

The problem we face today is that resources for veterans health care are falling behind demand. In other words, we are creating more veterans than we are covering under our health care system. Shortly after coming into office, the President created a task force to improve health care delivery for our Nation's veterans. The task force found that historically there has been a gap between the demand for VA care and the resources to meet the need. The task force also found that:

The current mismatch is far greater ..... and its impact potentially far more detrimental, both to the VA's ability to furnish high-quality care and to support the system to serve those in need.

The task force released its report in May of 2003, well before we understood the impact of our men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what that would mean to our veterans' health care system. If this mismatch between demand and resources was bad in May of 2003, imagine what it is today. That is why we see this gap. That is why we need to address--and the Senate has now passed, twice--$1.5 billion for emergency spending for veterans health care.

Over 360,000 soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 86,000 have sought health care up to this point from the VA.

There are an additional 740,000 military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are still in the service. This next generation of veterans will be eligible for VA health care and will place additional demands on a system that is already strained.

In addition, each reservist and National Guardsman who has served in Iraq is eligible for 2 years of free health care at the VA. I support that. The administration has in its own way admitted that they do not have sufficient resources to provide adequate care for America's veterans. While they would not until recently admit that there was a shortfall, they have for years attempted to ration care and cut services at the expense of our Nation's veterans. This is just not acceptable.

In 2003, the VA banned the enrollment of new priority 8 veterans. For the past 3 years I fought attempts by the administration to charge our middle-class veterans a $250 enrollment fee to join the VA health care system, and a 100-percent increase in prescription drug copays.

This year the administration also proposed slashing Federal support for the State veterans homes from $114 million to $12 million. The heads of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette tell me these cuts would be devastating to them in serving our veterans in Michigan.

The fiscal year 2005 and 2006 VA health budgets are a case study in why Congress should guarantee reliable and adequate resources through direct spending. Last March, the President submitted an inadequate fiscal year 2005 budget request for VA health care to Congress. That fell $3.2 billion short of the recommendation of the Independent Budget, which is an annual estimate of critical veterans health care needs by a coalition of leading veterans organizations. In fact, in February 2004, Anthony Principi, then the Secretary of the VA, testified before Congress that the request the President submitted to Congress fell $1.2 billion short of the amount he had recommended. It then fell to Congress to again increase the amount provided to VA for health care. The final amount Congress provided to the VA for health care was $1.2 billion over the President's request. While above the President's request, it was still not enough to meet the immediate needs.

In April of this year, I supported an amendment by Senator Murray to the fiscal year 2005 supplemental to Iraq and Afghanistan to provide $1.9 billion for veterans medical care, specifically for those veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the debate on the amendment, we were again told that the President's budget was sufficient. In fact, on April 5, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson sent a letter to the Senate that said:

I can assure you that the VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in the 2005 budget to continue to provide timely quality service. That is always our goal.

Mr. President, since April the story has changed, and we now know the truth.

On June 23, 2005, the VA testified before Congress that they forecasted a 2.5-percent growth in demand--in other words, more veterans, as we have all been saying, more veterans coming into the system--when in fact the increased demand this year is 5 percent. They said 2.5 percent; it actually was 5 percent. This has left the VA with a $1 billion shortfall. I was proud to support an amendment the following week to the Senate's Interior appropriations bill that provided an additional $1.5 billion for veterans health care. The following day, on June 30, the House passed emergency supplemental legislation that would cut this by $575 million, in line with the President's request.

At the time, our friends in the House suggested that the Senate was making up numbers. In fact, we wanted to be sure that the VA had enough funds to cover the shortfall and to cover any potential shortfall of next year. As it turned out, we received more bad news from the administration a couple weeks ago, on July 14, when the administration requested another $300 million for this year and a whopping $1.7 billion for next year. The total shortfall for this year and next now stands at nearly $3 billion.

The Interior appropriations bill is currently in conference. I am hopeful that the bill will include $1.5 billion for this year, as the Senate has twice unanimously supported. Further, last week the Senate Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, under the able leadership of Senator Hutchison and Senator Feinstein, included extra funding to cover the 2006 shortfall in VA health care.

Mr. President, I recall all of these events to make two points. First, it is clear that the demand for VA health care is increasing, and a good portion of this increase can be attributed to men and women seeking care after they have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Second is to show that despite the best intentions of the VA and Congress, the VA does not have a reliable, and dependable stream of funding to provide for veterans health care needs. We should not have to pass an emergency funding bill to give our veterans the health care they have earned.

Imagine that. It is not acceptable. It has been over a month and Congress has still not resolved the $1.3 billion shortfall in VA medical services for this year. We owe our service men and women more than that.

In 1993, there were about 2 1/2 million veterans in the VA system, and there are more than 7 million veterans enrolled in the system, over half of which receive care on a regular basis today. Despite the increase in patients, the VA has received an average of a 5-percent increase in appropriations over the last 8 years. At last count, at least 86,000 men and women who have returned from Iraq have sought health care from the VA, and we can safely assume this number will reach hundreds of thousands. This bill gives the resources our troops need to prepare and defend our country in Iraq. We must not forget them when they come home. We have an obligation to keep our promises to our veterans.

Mr. President, I am very hopeful that we will quickly return to the Defense reauthorization bill and have the opportunity to show our veterans all across America that we will permanently keep our commitment to them by passing the Stabenow-Johnson amendment. There are other important amendments that remain in front of us now because we have discontinued the opportunity for us to improve on this bill, a bill I support, but a bill that needs to be the very best that we can do for our men and women serving us today and for our veterans. I hope we will quickly return to it and that we will get about the business of continuing to work on these critical amendments and quickly bring this to a close. And we can do it this week if there is the will to do it so that we provide the very best to our men and women in service and those who have come home and put on the veterans cap.

Mr. President, I yield the remainder of my time under the 30 hours to Senator Reed.

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