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Mr. BEGICH. Mr. President, first, I wish to thank Senator Pryor. Senator Pryor and a group of us have introduced a piece of legislation that rights a wrong; that makes sure our military continues to receive their COLA in full course and in the full amount.
As the Presiding Officer knows, we had a budget issue we worked through, and in that process the COLA for our active retired military was reduced by 1 percent. We all knew we would take the time, because we had the time after the budget passed, to fix this problem. We have already done it for our disabled retired veterans and now we need to fulfill the final and full promise of their COLA in total.
I spoke last night about this issue, and then we had the vote on cloture, with the result being 94 to 0--94 to 0. If that isn't an indication of how much support there is to make sure the COLA comes back in full force, I don't know what is.
I do know starting right after that vote we began hearing from people already coming up with, well, I voted for cloture, but I have a caveat. I have some qualifications I want to add on that vote. I want to have these things in Washington that are called pay-fors.
Let me make it very clear to the veterans in my State--and there are 77,000 veterans who live in my State. The highest per capita in the Nation is in Alaska. They have paid the bill. They paid the bill time and time again.
This is a perfect photo to use as an example of our military who have served in combat, who served on the frontlines. Think about those who have already paid the ultimate bill--almost 6,800 servicemembers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan; from Alaska alone, 22, and I will read some of those names in a second.
First, I wish to make it very clear we are going to hear these convoluted reasons as to why we should have this pay-for. I wasn't here when they paid for these wars--no, I am sorry, they didn't pay for these wars. They didn't pay the $2 trillion-plus for the wars, but now that it is time to pay the bill for those who committed to serve our country, to go to the frontlines when called upon and ensure we have the freedom we enjoy in this country, some are saying: Well, yes, we want to give them that retirement COLA, but--there should be no ``but'' here. A promise made is a promise we need to keep.
My view is we should have their backs every single day, and this is the day to do it. Let me make it very clear to those who are going to have this convoluted reason for this pay-for: This is a vote for vets or a vote against vets. You can have all the gobbledygook, all the convoluted arguments, but at the end of the day if you vote against this bill, without all this stuff added to it--just a clean and simple giving the COLA back and then let's move on, give them their full COLA--you are voting against vets.
I don't care how they try to press-release it, spin it, or what amendments they want to add to create a political situation for other Members on other issues unrelated to vets. A promise made is a promise we need to keep. We need to have their backs. They have our backs every single day to make sure this country is safe, no matter where American citizens are in this country or in this world. It is our time to do what is right for veterans.
I shared some stories last night about Alaskans who are struggling with this issue and the commitment they thought they had. One gentleman served 18 years in the military and is close to retirement. He is wondering what did he sign up for. He has had enormous pressures on his family. He has moved six different times. He has two children, one disabled, and a variety of personal issues. But he continues to serve this country. And for us to play politics and start talking about immigration, child tax credits, forget it. It is time to do what is right for our veterans, to put this COLA back in full force.
Over 30 veterans organizations support this bill with no pay-for, clean and simple. Senator Pryor and I were on a phone call last week and talked to many--the Air Force Association, Army Aviation Association, the Fleet Reserves, Gold Star Wives--I can go through the list of 30-plus organizations who work with our veterans every single day and want us to pass this bill--not an amended bill but this bill: Get it done and give peace of mind to our veterans and retirees and active military.
To some degree this puts our readiness at risk. If someone is thinking about joining the military, they are looking at the benefits. They know at some point they may be called to duty and put their life on the line. So they are looking at the benefits: What can they provide for themselves and their families? What is the retirement if they become a career officer or a career enlisted member? And now they are questioning if they should.
I received emails from some parents whose sons and daughters are currently enlisted and are now wondering, what did they get into when at a moment's notice the commitments, the promises we--Congress--made can change overnight.
Our readiness is at risk, and the promises and commitments we make to our military are in question. Today is the start to make sure our commitments are there. We cannot say to our veterans: Sign up; we will promise you these things, and tomorrow we might change them. That doesn't help our readiness and commitment.
I get that there is going to be a lot of policy wonk conversation by some Members because they want to confuse the issue and make it hard for people to understand what is really going on in Washington. But it is simple. The chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee knows this issue is simple. It is about our vets. If you vote yes, you are for our vets; if you vote no, you are against our vets. That is it. They can put in all the spin and all the amendments to make it sound good. But in reality, they are trying to cover an activity they are struggling with; that is, they don't necessarily like some of us who are sponsors. I get that. But let's put aside our politics. Let's do what is right for the vets, let's have their backs, let's keep the promise we made to them.
Again, this bill is simple. It is so simple it is 1 page. It just says: Repeal that action.
I hope my colleagues on the other side who are wondering about what they should do will vote for the vets. Vote yes. Don't mess with amendments, don't try to have this pay-for convoluted argument. The vets at home who will be watching don't care about that. They just want to make sure their COLA is there. Let's give them the peace of mind they deserve.
I will read a few of the names who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. I read some of these last night: GySgt Christopher Eastman, Marines, age 28, from Moose Pass, AK; SGT Joel Clarkson, Army, age 23, Fairbanks; LCpl Grant Fraser, Marine Reserves, age 22, Anchorage; SPC Shane Woods, Army, age 23, Palmer.
These are just a few of the 22 Alaskans who have lost their lives. I don't know if they would have been long-term career if they stayed in the Army or Air Force, but they sacrificed their lives. They put their lives on the line to make sure we do the right thing here. It is time we do it. Today is the opportunity. Don't convolute it with all kinds of amendments. Vote up or down. You are either for vets or against vets.
I yield the floor.
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