Military Construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2016—Motion to Proceedby Senator Jon Tester
Posted on 2015-09-30
TESTER. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for
the quorum call be rescinded.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
Mr. TESTER. Mr. President, I want to talk today about the bill we are considering currently--the MILCON-VA bill. I urge the Senate to take up and pass an appropriations bill that does right by our Nation's veterans. I think it is very important. But the MILCON-VA bill before us today--and I might add along with the rest of the appropriations bills--is shackled to an unwise and unrealistic budget that locks in destructive sequestration cuts and vastly underfunds programs vital to this Nation's security and prosperity, and it doesn't deal with the challenges the Veterans' Administration faces. Make no mistake about it, America's veterans would be severely shortchanged by this bill as it is currently drafted.
Coming from the State of Montana, where we have the second highest per capita veterans population, I cannot look in the eyes of our Nation's brave men and women and say to them that this bill will fulfill our promise to you. This bill underfunds our veterans by over $850 million, subjecting the VA to the across-the-board spending caps the majority is desperate to avoid on the Defense bill. That is hypocritical because, let's be honest with ourselves, caring for our veterans is a cost of war.
What we know and what the majority knows is that this bill is severely limiting the VA's ability to fulfill its mission--caring for those who have borne the battle. Need I remind everyone that just a few weeks ago, because of a surge in demand for hepatitis C treatments and a historic increase in non-VA care referrals, the VA medical services account ran out of money. As a result, we had to pass emergency legislation to allow Choice Act funding to be used to shore up the VA and prevent a serious disruption for veterans across this country.
The budget pressures that caused that shortfall are the result of an unprecedented demand for services in terms of both numbers and complexity, and that demand will only continue to grow. At some point during the next year, nearly half the veterans will be 65 years old or older. Many of these folks will be seeking treatment to deal with the effects of toxic exposure--something we are struggling to better understand and treat and something that could have effects on their children and grandchildren.
At the same time, a younger generation of veterans is struggling to cope with the unseen wounds of war. They are fighting to keep their lives and their families together, and for some of them it is a daily struggle to overcome the suicidal thoughts that claim the lives of at least 22 of their peers each and every day. Those are the stakes here. They are that high.
We are also talking about an unprecedented demand for expensive new treatments for diseases, such as hepatitis C, which are shorter in duration and which have fewer side effects and have cure rates approaching 100 percent. That is good news, but we have to have money to do that. We are talking about addressing a chronic shortage of medical professionals, particularly mental health professionals in rural America, which greatly hinders our ability to provide veterans with timely and quality care. We are talking about a growing population of caregivers who have been forced to abandon their jobs and their livelihoods to care for loved ones with debilitating medical conditions, and we are talking about facilities that are literally crumbling in some cases and severely impacting the delivery of care.
I believe we need more transparency and accountability from the VA to ensure it is spending taxpayer dollars in a responsible way. But let's be clear. Today we are asking more and more of the VA, and this bill gives them less than they need. Now is not the time to take a step backward. If we do that, we are never going to catch up.
If we don't enact a commonsense, long-term budget that better reflects our priorities, our values, and provides the tools and resources required to fulfill our promises to veterans and their families, then we should all question just what are we doing here.
Mr. President, there are cases when each of us has looked at a bill or amendment and said: You know, it is not perfect, but it is good enough. Sometimes that is what it takes to get work done around here. But when it comes to our veterans, when it comes to restoring confidence in the VA after the problems they have had in the last 2 years, I don't think that is a path we should take.
I know my chairman, Senator Kirk, did his best in writing this bill to soften the blow of budget constraints that he was forced to meet. I truly appreciate his efforts and his inclusiveness in working with me. But the fact is that he was handed a no-win allocation by his party's budget. You can't patch the holes in the VA budget created by sequestration. You can't shift money from known medical care requirements--treatment for cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease, to name just a few--to plug gaps in emerging requirements, such as lifesaving but costly new hepatitis C treatments.
That is why I offered an amendment in committee to restore $857 million to bring the VA to its requested level. Unfortunately, none of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle joined me, and it failed on a party-line vote. I am at a complete loss as to why we are now being asked to move to a bill that we all know underfunds the VA by almost $1 billion. For what? So that we can send this bill to conference with the House, whose own VA bill underfunds the VA by $1.4 billion--$600 million more than the Senate. That will not improve the quality or the timeliness of veterans health care nor will giving the VA authority to fire more doctors and nurses without due process.
It is time to stop the political games and maneuvering. To serve our veterans, to serve this country, and to serve all Americans, Congress must establish funding levels driven by what the VA actually needs, not by some arbitrary mathematical formula. We need a rational, realistic, bipartisan budget agreement to replace the draconian sequestration funding levels entrenched in the majority's fiscal year 2016 budget.
I have been calling on Senate leaders for months to sit down and hash out a long-term budget agreement. The majority leader's response was to wait until the day before the government was scheduled to shut down and then pass a short-term CR. As early as tomorrow, we expect to vote on an appropriations bill that will drastically underfund the VA for the next fiscal year. This is clearly an attempt to paint those of us who think this bill is insufficient as voting against veterans.
That plan will not work because I am here to tell you that veterans are well aware of the funding shortfall. It is one of the chief problems that is currently plaguing the VA. I will continue to provide adequate funding to support America's veterans.
While I am disappointed the majority wouldn't work with us on a broader budget deal this summer, the CR that we passed today gives us just over 2 months to reach a reasonable budget agreement--an agreement that will support our veterans, an agreement that Members on both sides of the aisle agree we need. That is the job we are elected to do. But make no mistake, if we are having this same conversation on December 10, we have failed--failed our veterans, failed the American people.
I urge my colleagues to oppose the motion to proceed to this bill so that we can finally negotiate a bipartisan budget agreement that will do away with the devastating impacts of sequestration and will instead provide a responsible way forward to fund our government, to protect our national security, and to care for this Nation's veterans.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.
[[Page S7039]] I suggest the absence of a quorum.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.
The bill clerk proceeded to call the roll.