Remarks as Prepared for Delivery:
“Mr. President, like many Americans, I listened carefully to the President’s Iraq speech last night. As I said in a letter to him earlier this week, his address to the nation afforded him an excellent opportunity to present to the American people his plan for success, to discuss the costs and sacrifices that will be required in the days ahead, and to assure our troops – active and retired – that he is committed to doing everything he possibly can to see they get resources they’ve earned.
“Unfortunately I feel the President’s address fell short on all of these accounts and I will have more to say in the days and weeks ahead about this speech and the path forward in Iraq.
“Having said this, there is one part of the President’s address that bears directly on my letter and the matters before the Senate today. At the end of his speech, President Bush called on Americans to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom by flying the flag, sending letters to our troops in the field, helping the military families down the street, or going to a new Defense Department website.
“Mr. President, although I think we owe the men and women in uniform much more than flying flags, mailing letters, and logging onto DoD websites, I share and support the sentiment and will continue to make sure we recognize the service and sacrifices of our military personnel and their families.
“And although the President chose not to mention our veterans in his address last night, I believe we have an equally solemn obligation to recognize their sacrifices and to thank them for their willingness to defend our freedom. The amendments before us give us the opportunity to do just that.
“Just as the obligation is clear, so is the need. At the start of the year, we knew that over 130,000 troops had returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many analysts told us to expect that an additional 150,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen would return in the months ahead.
“That is why in January and February, Democrats led by Senators Murray and Byrd warned that the war in Iraq and the war on terror were generating hundreds of thousands of new veterans who would soon swamp the existing capacity of the VA health care system. Moreover, we warned that many of these soldiers had suffered traumatic injuries that would require extended and intensive care.
“All of this led Democrats and independent veterans groups to conclude that the veterans health care system was massively underfunded, and unless drastic steps were taken immediately, tens of thousands of veterans would be denied access to the health care this nation owes them.
“Unfortunately, Republicans responded by denying a problem existed, by having the Senate address issues that do not make a difference to most Americans rather than an issue like veterans health that does, and by defeating Democratic efforts to provide our veterans the health care resources they so clearly and desperately needed.
“At a time when hundreds of thousands of veterans were returning home in need of health care, the Bush Administration submitted a budget request in February that did not contain a single dollar in additional resources to care for the newest generation of veterans. The Administration budget was so out of step with reality that the head of the VFW characterized it as “shameful” and the National Commander of AMVETS called it “woefully inadequate.”
“And what did our Republican colleagues here in the Senate do with that woefully inadequate and shameful budget? Did they support Democratic efforts to provide veterans additional resources in their budget? Did they support Democratic efforts to increase veterans funding on other legislative vehicles. Did they make veterans a top priority this session of Congress? Unfortunately, the answer to all of these questions is no.
“While Senate Republicans found plenty of time to pursue issues that don’t matter to most Americans including intervening in the most private and personal decision a family can make, they found no time for tens of thousands of soldiers who they knew were coming home soon and to a health care system that lacked he resources to meet their needs.
“On three separate occasions this year, Sen. Murray and Senate Democrats asked the Senate to vote to provide additional resources to the veterans’ health care system. On each occasion, Senate Republicans, including the lead sponsor of one of the amendments we will soon vote on, voted no. No to additional funding for our veterans. No to giving them the quality health care they have earned. No to keeping our nation’s commitments to those who have served.
“The response of the Bush Administration was similar, and similarly out of touch. Rather than acknowledging there was a problem and addressing the concerns raised by Democrats and outside veterans’ groups, the Administration initially chose a path of denial that ultimately bordered on outright deceit. In April, after Senator Murray offered an amendment on the emergency supplemental to increase veterans’ health care funding by $1.9 billion, VA Secretary Nicholson said, “I can assure you that the VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY2005 to continue to provide the timely, quality service that is always our goal….I do not foresee any challenges that are not solvable within our own management decision capability.”
“The concerns raised by this head-in-the-sand statement were greatly exacerbated yesterday. At a hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, veterans’ affairs officials from the Bush Administration made two astonishing admissions. First, VA Secretary Nicholson acknowledged that funding for veterans’ health care programs is short by at least $2.6 billion because the Administration dramatically underestimated the number of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is just the latest example of how poorly the Administration planned for and prepared this nation for what would be required in Iraq and the war on terror.
“Second, and even more troubling, VA Undersecretary Heath Perlin testified to Congress that, at the same time Secretary Nicholson was assuring Congress no additional resources were needed, the VA was already dipping into reserve funds to meet its operational needs. And Secretary Nicholson admitted that a management decision had been made in early April to also dip into capital funds to keep veterans’ health care operations afloat.
“Think about this for a second. The Administration sends hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops abroad to fight in Iraq and elsewhere but says it didn’t expect they would return home and need health care services. The Administration then fails to provide any additional funds to address the health care needs of these soldiers and, when pushed on this by Democrats, tells Congress no additional funds are needed. And in the final act, the Administration acknowledges that at the very time it was insisting no additional funds were needed, the VA was tapping into reserve funds, and the VA Secretary had decided to pay for day-to-day health care expenses by dipping into capital funds, which would severely impact medical facilities across the country, including a major medical center proposed in my home state of Nevada. Quite a performance.
“Fortunately, today in the Senate is a new day. At long last we have both the Administration and Senate Republicans acknowledging there is a problem. And at long last Senate Republicans are now willing to join Senate Democrats to do something about it. Although Republican support for our veterans has been long in coming, I welcome their eleventh hour conversion.
“While the needs of our veterans were not enough to get the attention of some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, apparently the 2006 elections are. Regardless of their motivation, we welcome their support now. I only hope the Administration and Senate Republicans remain willing and eager to join with us in future efforts to ensure that our troops – active and retired – and their families receive the respect and recognition they deserve.”