30-SOMETHING WORKING GROUP
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.
I want to thank the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and our entire Democratic leadership for the opportunity for the 30-Something Working Group to once again come to the floor and talk about the priorities of the Democratic Caucus and the new direction for America that we are humbled to be able to lead this country in.
On November 7 of last year, the American people spoke loudly and clearly, Mr. Speaker, that it was imperative that we move this Nation in a new direction on a variety of issues, not the least of which is the direction that we are going in in this war in Iraq. And I am so proud today to be able to stand here knowing that the vote that I cast personally and that the 217 other Members that passed that legislation off this floor this afternoon cast so that we can now finally begin to ensure that our troops will have the armor that they need, the armor and equipment that they need, a plan to get them home most importantly, and to ensure that we can begin to transition in Iraq so that the Iraqi people will be able to stand on their own, run their democracy and make sure that they can focus on solving the civil war and the strife that is going on in the midst of their country, because that is essentially what we have been doing for them. What we have been doing for them that we can no longer continue to do is inserting ourselves in the middle of their chaos without plans to be able to withdraw, without a single brigade of their army completely trained to stand on their own. It is time and the American people have insisted that it is time to begin to move in the direction where we can shift the mission from combat to training, where we can focus our troops that will remain there by the end of next year on counterterrorism, on putting down the insurgency and on making sure that the Iraqi troops are well trained so that they can continue to move forward with their experiment in democracy. That is what the legislation that we passed today will do, and I am so proud of our caucus and of our colleagues and of our leadership for the work that we have done together, for the unity that we showed, for the courage that so many of our colleagues showed, Mr. Speaker. We have a very diverse caucus, a very diverse group of Democratic Members who for a variety of reasons, for a variety of soul searching were able to come together from all of the different facets of the philosophical spectrum, to come together today and pass this extremely important legislation.
Mr. Speaker, I have been in public office for 14 years. I have only served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 2 years, but that was one of the most emotional experiences and the most difficult experiences that I know I have gone through. And I cast that vote knowing that I had the support of my constituents, knowing and confident that my constituents want to make sure that we can bring those American troops home.
I had an opportunity to travel and spend some time with our troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center a few weeks ago before we voted on the resolution opposing the President's escalation proposal. I have said this the last few times we have talked about this on the floor. I had a chance to speak to a number of different troops individually. One young man who has stayed with me, and I think I've thought about him and his family every single day since then. As a mom with little kids, I have 7-year-old twins and a 3-year-old little girl. Almost every major vote I cast, I cast with them in mind. There is another generation of Americans who we are going to protect from that vote that we cast today. And this young man who I had a chance to meet with, he had just gotten home from his third tour of duty. Each was a year. His third tour and his 6-year-old little boy was in the room along with his wife and his little boy was so excited and just full of vibrancy and life. He shook my hand. It was just so neat to be able to talk to him. He told me that his daddy was finally going to be coming home for good, forever, in August. He had come down with a really inexplicable illness and was convalescing at Walter Reed. And when the young man told me that he had been through his third tour of duty and that his boy was 6, it was not lost on me that he had missed half of his son's life, a 6-year-old little boy with his dad gone for 3 separate years. That is just unacceptable. That is not what the procedures are supposed to require of our men and women in uniform. There is supposed to be at least 365 days of noncombat duty in between tours. The legislation that we passed today will ensure that that will happen. The legislation that we passed today will ensure that our troops have the equipment that they need. It will ensure that $1.7 billion in funding will provide the health care that our veterans need.
I listened to a lot of the speeches on the floor, almost all of them, today. What we continually heard from our friends on the other side of the aisle was almost as if maybe they didn't read the bill, maybe they weren't paying attention, but more likely they were just being political. I heard comments about how our legislation didn't provide the equipment for the troops, when up until now it is this President, with the acknowledgment of the military leadership, that has sent our troops into harm's way without the proper training. We have the least trained, least prepared Army that we have ever had at this point, spread as thin as they possibly could be spread, and then they have the nerve on the other side of the aisle to suggest that it is us that is not providing the protection for our troops. That is ludicrous. I'm not sure whether they're not listening to their constituents when they're home or not having a chance like I did and like I know you have to sit down with troops who have been in the line of duty. Maybe they're listening with different ears or maybe more likely they're listening with a different heart, because the heart that I listened with knows that we can't allow the pointless loss of human life anymore, not for our men and women in uniform and not for the Iraqi people who are also losing their lives in the midst of chaos. If we are going to focus on the war on terror, we should be shifting our approach to the war in Afghanistan, where we provide a significant infusion of funding, badly needed funding so that we can turn Afghanistan back around.
If you recall, Mr. Speaker, after the tragedy of 9/11 and we initially went in to respond to that tragedy, to stand up for America, we went into Afghanistan and we got rid of the Taliban and we made sure that we could restore human rights in that country and we could restore the rights of women to go to school and to walk in public without a burqa and to really shine the light of freedom on a country that lived in darkness for decades. Instead, this President and this Republican leadership shifted our focus, lost our purpose, lost their way, or gave up is really a better way to put it, and invaded Iraq under false pretenses, provided this Congress, many of our colleagues who voted ``yes'' relying on the information from this administration that it was out of necessity. This wasn't a war of necessity. This was a war of choice. We don't have the luxury of going into wars of choice, Mr. Speaker, when we have wars of necessity like Afghanistan, when we have a situation like we have in Iran, where we have a leader in that country who has threatened the very existence of the State of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, where we have nations in the Middle East who truly want to see democracy fail. Instead, we have created an incubator for terrorism in Iraq.
I heard colleagues on the other side of the aisle speak today about how we were going to lose the war on terror if we passed this legislation today. Well, the administration has made the war on terror worse, has made the likelihood of being attacked greater by creating the cesspool that exists in that nation. We must take the steps that the legislation that I proudly supported and that you proudly supported today, that that legislation will do so that we can put some benchmarks in place, so that we can make sure, just like the President said on January 10, so that we can establish some benchmarks, make sure that the Iraqi leadership meets those benchmarks, and if they don't, then the blank check and the open-ended commitment to this pointless war will end. That is the direction that we are now moving in.
I am pleased to be joined by my good friend and neighbor from the State of Florida, my colleague, Mr. Kendrick Meek.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. I wanted to take off on the point you just made about the ability we give for the President to make a decision that he thinks is in the national interest, of national security.
Mr. Speaker, this legislation provides benchmarks, the same benchmarks that this President came before the country and said were essential on January 10; that we have unit readiness; that we have a length of deployment.
We have two sets of benchmarks here. We have benchmarks that this Democratic Congress put in this legislation to make sure we can protect our troops, to make sure we weren't sending them into harm's way unprepared. Then we have benchmarks in this bill to ensure that the Iraqis meet their obligations. Those obligations, those benchmarks, are the same ones that the President indicated to the American people were essential when he spoke to the Nation on January 10.
When this Congress switched from Republican to Democrat after November 7, the main reason it happened is because the American people were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They had lost their confidence in their government. Their confidence in this Congress was badly shaken. We had scandals. We had a culture of corruption. We had a situation where the American people couldn't believe that their Congress was doing right on their behalf, and that the majority, Republican at the time, was here for the right reasons. That is why there was a wholesale shift and we won 33 seats on November 7.
We are exercising Congress's appropriate oversight role and reasserting the system of checks and balances that the Founding Fathers envisioned, particularly by putting language in this bill that ensures that units have to be ready. They have to be prepared. The chief of the military department concerned has to determine that a unit is fully mission capable before it is deployed to Iraq.
The reason that I wanted to interject during Mr. Meek's remarks is because you, Mr. Meek, mentioned that the President can certify to the Congress that sending a unit into harm's way in Iraq in spite of the fact that they are not fully mission capable would be in the national interest.
He is the commander-in-chief. There is no question that the President is the commander-in-chief. But it is our responsibility as Members of Congress that we look out for the American people, specifically and especially in this case our men and women in uniform who are going over to defend this country. We provide the funding to send them over. We provide the funding to ensure that they are fully equipped and prepared. And the President should have to come back to us and say in spite of the fact that this unit, these women and men are going over there unprepared and aren't fully mission capable, it still is in the national interest to send them. That is the least that he can do.
He can maintain his role as commander-in-chief in this legislation, but he has to make sure that he is doing right by our troops, and he has to own up to what he is doing in this legislation, including in their length of deployment.
There is a Defense Department policy, Mr. Speaker, that requires the Department of Defense to abide by its current policy, which is that you shouldn't deploy a unit to Iraq or any region more than 365 days for the Army and more than 210 days for the Marines. The President in this legislation can waive that provision too, but he has to say that it is in the national interest to do so, to send troops on another tour with less than a year's rest, less than 210 days in the case of Marines.
Again, he has to actually say to that young man, whose 6-year-old boy I met, it is okay to miss half your son's life, because we need you, it is in the national interest, instead of being able to sort of duck and cover and do it in a clandestine way without the American people really knowing and without him owning up to it.
The same with time between deployments. It requires the Defense Department, besides length of deployment, the time between deployment is essential as well. The President can waive that provision, but he has to say to the Congress that it is in the national interests to do so.
We also have benchmarks related to the Iraqi people as well. By July 1, 2007, the President has to certify that Iraq is making meaningful and substantial progress in meeting political and military benchmarks, including a militia disarmament program and a plan that equitably shares oil revenues among all Iraqis. After all, they are in the midst of civil war. They are killing each other over things like that.
The President has to certify there is progress being made. Otherwise, we are going to be there forever, with no end in sight, with no pressure on the Iraqi leadership to get the job done. Why would they feel the need to move in the direction of progress if they know that there is a never-ending, open-ended commitment for us to be there and for the money to keep flowing.
They also have to achieve political and military benchmarks. By October 1, 2007, the President has to certify that Iraqis have achieved political and military benchmarks, and if he doesn't provide that certification, then U.S. forces will begin immediate deployment completed by March 2008. There are steps toward progress that the Iraqi leadership must take or we are not going to continue to put our men and women in harm's way, and we shouldn't.
And, finally, we need to eventually end our participation in this war. Our commitment there should be finite, not open-ended. The President should not have a blank check, and this legislation that we passed today ensures that.
I would be happy to yield to the gentleman.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. You know, there are students of history, our esteemed Speaker in the Chair is a former college professor, and he certainly knows that the origin of this country was one where our Founding Fathers and the people that came before them that colonized this nation were escaping from tyranny, essentially, were escaping so that they could be free, so that they could be free from one individual telling them how their lives would be run, so they could be free from persecution about their religious choices that they made, so they could be free from taxation without representation, so that they could be free. And the reason that our democracy was set up as it is, with a Commander in Chief, with an executive as well as a legislative and judicial branch, was so that there would be a system of checks and balances.
I am baffled by our friends on the other side of the aisle when they seem to be saying that the Congress weighing in with binding legislation, with benchmarks, and with a time line so that we can ensure that there is not a never-ending commitment and a blank check being written to folks fighting a civil war in another country, our friends on the other side of the aisle seem to be saying that we should only care about the opinion of one person, the person in the White House, that the decisions that the executive of this Nation makes are the only ones that matter.
Well, if you go back to the origin of this Nation, Mr. Meek, you go back to the origin of this Nation, that is why our power was diffused. That is why our Founding Fathers created three branches of government, because they experienced the tyranny of one individual. They had decisions forced on them by a king, by a monarch, who told them exactly what was going to happen. And there was no place to turn, there was nowhere to go. Well, the American people and our men and women in uniform can turn to us because they have a Congress, they have a representative body that can rescue them when the executive makes the wrong decision, and that is what has happened here.
That is also what has happened with our veterans, Mr. Meek, because it is incredibly important that we emphasize that, while we have made some very important, significant and essential decisions about the direction that we are going to continue to go in this war in Iraq, we also made some significant decisions to help our veterans, the ones that have already fought and have come back and have been left behind, have been forgotten, the ones that this administration and the Republican leadership before us had callous disregard for.
And we are always about third-party validation in the 30-Something Working Group, so people just shouldn't take it from me or take it from you. Let's just walk through what happened before and what has happened leading up to today with the vote that we cast on this floor.
So, Mr. Speaker, before I got here, Mr. Meek, you were here, but before I got here, this is right when you got here, in January 2003, the Bush administration cut off veterans health care for 164,000 veterans. That is right in the Federal Register. It is documented on January 17, 2003.
In March of 2003, the Republican budget, crafted then by this Republican Congress at the time, cut $14 billion from veterans health care that was passed by the Congress with 199 Democrats voting against it.
In March of 2004, the Republican budget shortchanged veterans health care by $1.5 billion, and that was passed by a Congress with 201 Democrats voting against it.
Fast forward to March of 2005. President Bush shortchanged veterans health care by more than $2 billion in 2005 and cut veterans health care by $14 billion over 5 years, and that had 201 Democrats voting against it.
But that is not all. Mr. Speaker, in the summer of 2005, after Democratic pressure, the Bush administration finally acknowledged, when I got here, Mr. Speaker, the Republican administration was denying, Mr. Meek, you remember this, they were denying there was a shortfall in the Veterans Administration budget, repeatedly denying it. There were articles about the dispute. The Veterans Administration insisted there wasn't a problem; but finally in the summer of 2005, after constant pressure from the Democrats in the minority, they finally had to acknowledge that the fiscal 2006 shortfall in veterans health care totaled $2.7 billion. We had to fight all summer to fix that.
We had to do an emergency supplemental during that summer to make sure that we could fund that shortfall.
I remember when we were doing the 30-Something Working Group during that time, I remember Mr. Meek put the picture of the Secretary of the Department of the Veterans Administration up on that table there because what seemed important to the Secretary of the VA at the time was that his picture be hanging in every building run by the VA, and he was all the while denying there was a shortfall in his budget, and he couldn't adequately provide for the veterans under his care; but he was going to make darn sure his picture was hanging in every building.
In March of 2006, President Bush's budget cut veterans' funding by $6 billion over 5 years, and that was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress.
Finally, after November 7, 2006, and the American people voted for a new direction, the Democratic Congress increased the veterans' health care budget by $3.6 billion in the joint funding resolution. And in the supplemental legislation we passed, we provide an additional $1.7 billion to fund veterans' health care and to address the significant problems we have at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which were also denied and not acknowledged until the Washington Post exposed the travesty. We have since had heads roll, the Secretary of the Army, the general that headed up Walter Reed and numerous others. The only reason we had accountability there, finally, is because we have a check and balance. We have oversight and hearings going on. Congress is asking questions. We are not allowing one person to make all of the decisions and impose them on the people that he represents. Finally.
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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. We have locked elbows for 12 years, Mr. Meek, worked together and fought together. As we close, I was thinking as you were closing that you and I, we were born 3 weeks apart. The Vietnam war, when the Vietnam war was ending, we were less than 10 years old. We were little kids. I don't remember much about how the Vietnam War closed out, but that was the beginning part of the history lessons that we had in public school.
I remember learning about, and I have read articles and read textbooks and studied for exams learning about what happened to our men and women in uniform when they came back from that war. As they came back, they were spat upon and disrespected and unappreciated. We see sadly the results of that with so many of the homeless and mentally disabled veterans that scatter on our Mall and who stand up for the rights of veterans.
I have to tell you, I am also proud of the American people because as we grew up, and as we spent the balance of our lives until this point without there being war, that is not how our troops are treated any longer. The American people grew, and they learned, and that is what I am incredibly proud of.
I am proud that our colleagues today did two things that are important: We used our heads, and we listened with our hearts, and we will be able to bring our men and women in uniform home from this war. Until then, we will make sure that they have the funding that they need, the equipment that they deserve, and the plan to get them home.
Mr. Speaker, the 30-Something Working Group is always proud to be able to come to the floor at the pleasure of the Speaker of the House and our leadership team. If anyone wants to contact us or see any of the charts or see any of the information that we have talked about on the floor this afternoon, they can e-mail us at 30SomethingDems@mail.house.gov or visit us at our Web site, www.speaker.gov/30something.