Chairwoman Mikulski Fights to Move MilCon/VA Appropriations Bill on Floor

Date: July 29, 2014
Contact: Vince Morris (202) 224-1010
Mikulski Working to Help Veterans with Trifecta – Moving VA Funding, Confirming New Secretary & Approving Conference Report on Reform Bill
WASHINGTON, DC— U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, today spoke on the floor twice as she sought to bring the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Fiscal Year 2015 Appropriations Bill to the floor for a vote.
In her first speech, delivered this morning, Senator Mikulski encouraged her colleagues to bring up the MilCon/VA bill for consideration as Congress moves towards approval of a the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. In her second floor speech, she asked for unanimous consent to immediately bring up and pass the MilCon/VA bill. During her appearance on the floor, an objection was raised and so the bill was not brought up.
The following are Chairwoman Mikulski’s remarks from this morning, as delivered:
“Thank you very much, Mr. President.  Mr. President, I rise today as Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee to talk about several challenges facing our country.  First, I just want to reiterate the comments made by many of the senators this morning on the compelling need to pass a supplemental appropriations bill to help Israel replenish the rockets it's used up in its Iron Dome missile defense system.
“I am an unabashed, unrelenting supporter of that effort.  For many years, as United States Senator on the Appropriations committee, on the Defense Subcommittee, and also as a member of the Intelligence Committee, I know how important the Israeli missile defense system Iron Dome is. I worked hands-on with Senator Inouye, the late, great senator - a Congressional Medal of Honor winner – to make sure we funded the missile defense system for Israel and to work on a bipartisan basis.
“Senator Stevens, Senator Cochran and I worked together and thank God it worked.  We also worked together to implement a bipartisan agreement signed by President Bush with the government of Israel that we would always help Israel maintain its qualitative edge.  And, you know what?  We've done it.
“And I'm proud of it.  Now, more than ever, an antimissile defense system that has worked needs to continue operation.  We know that the technology works, but they need to make sure that they have the tools to make the technology work - these additional rockets.
“We know that Israel is under attack.  It's always been under attack since its very founding.  This is not an existential threat.  This is not an abstract threat.  It is a daily threat.  And we know that Israel is trying to defend itself against the grim, unrelenting attacks by Hamas, a self-avowed terrorist organization that has sworn in its documents not to allow Israel to continue.  They absolutely oppose an independent Israeli state.
“Mr. President, it is this month that we're commemorating the Warsaw uprising.  The presiding officer is a member of the group we affectionately call the Polish Caucus, Senators who have a relationship with the Polish government, one of our greatest supporters in the NATO Alliance.
“We recall that 70 years ago people were willing to fight back against the Nazis, rising out of the sewers of a Warsaw ghetto, to be able to fight them off with sticks and stones and out-of-date weapons, to able to liberate Poland from Nazi oppression, including in places like Dachau, Auschwitz and others, where there was so much death.
“We're one year away from commemorating the liberation of the death camps.  We know that as those people marched out of those death camps, they made their way into Palestine, which became the state of Israel.  We were the first nation to recognize the necessary and rightful place for Israel to exist as an independent government, and forever and a day the homeland for the Jewish people so that they would be safe from terrorism and genocide.
“So I am for this whole Iron Dome supplemental, and we need to do it.  But it cannot be the only thing that we put in the supplemental.  We have neighbors right now hurting in our own country, our Western states - with wildfires raging over hundreds of thousands of acres, land being depleted, local resources and first responders exhausted, local funds being drawn down.  So when we move on this supplemental, let's look out for the great state of Israel.  Let's look out for our neighbors who are facing wildfires. And let's look out for what is going on at our border.
“But, Mr. President, I came to the floor to, first of all, compliment Senator Sanders for the outstanding job he did working on a bipartisan basis to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014.  What a great job they did out of a scandal, a terrible scandal affecting our nation's veterans, where they had to stand in line simply to see a doctor in the very country that they fought to defend, and then found that they had to defend themselves against the VA bureaucracy and, in some cases, duplicitous action.
“Well, the Sanders bill goes a long way towards rectifying this wrong on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the dome.  Gosh, when we do this, this is why I wanted to be a Senator.  I know this is why many others wanted to be a Senator.  Coming here, working on concrete problems, shoulder to shoulder, on a bipartisan basis, hands across the aisle and hands across the dome.
“When the Sanders bill is passed, it will reduce the long wait times for veterans.  It will increase doctors and nurses and specialty providers.  It will allow veterans to see local providers if they've been on a wait list for an extended period of time or have to drive 40 miles to be able to get to a VA clinic.
“And we're going to pay for it with $10 billion in mandatory emergency funds.  That's the way to do it.  The Sanders bill will go a long way in increasing personnel and also in expanding a number of clinics with 27 new clinics. So I think it's great.
“But, Mr. President, as important as that bill is, it's an important step, but it cannot be the only step that we take this week.  Mr. President, I am so excited that shoulder to shoulder, if we work together, we could complete a trifecta for our veterans.  We could pass the Veterans Choice, Access and Accountability Act, so there are new opportunities for health care where veterans don't have to stand in line.
“Also, we're going to vote today on Robert McDonald, to give the VA a new Secretary, a new CEO, new leadership, new energy, new vitality and new ways of doing business, bringing the practical know-how of the private sector to meeting our mission.
“But in addition to those two, as important as they are, I also come as the Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee to say, why don't we take a third step that really will do the job?  Let's pass the MilCon/VA Appropriations bill so we can actually put next year's funding in the federal checkbook, rather than just putting VA on autopilot.
“We can actually make a big difference with the new Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, but that will take days, weeks, months to put in operation.  Right this minute, we could pass the MilCon/VA bill, as well as giving new leadership. I come here because I really do want to move the MilCon/VA bill.
“Mr. President, the Appropriations Committee works through its subcommittees and, wow, have I had two great Subcommittee Chairmen and Ranking member on MilCon/VA, two outstanding senators - Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois.  They have worked so assiduously on coming up with a bill for funding our veterans for FY15, and it is an outstanding bill.
“But right now we're out there in the wilderness.  We've moved it through the subcommittee. We've moved it through the full Committee. It passed unanimously.  And we're out in the ether waiting to come to the floor.  Senators Johnson, Kirk, Mikulski and Shelby -- we're like people with our nose pressed against the glass on the door.  We see it within our grasp, but we can't get through.  And all we want to do is help to complete the job that we're trying to undertake today.
“You know, without the MilCon/VA Appropriations bill, the veterans will lack key tools to expand care, important support personnel who allow the doctors and nurses to do their job and important technology to run contemporary institutions.  And, by the way, the bill that we're going to be working on, the Sanders bill, is focused on health care.  But we on the Appropriations Committee dealt not only with aspects of that, but on also the terrible backlog on veterans' disability.
“Mr. President, not only do you have to stand in line to get health care, but you're standing days, weeks, months, to get your disability claim.  You've lost an arm or a leg or you can't breathe or you have PTSD, and we can't get your disability processed.  This is unacceptable.  What we do in the VA bill is come up with the funds to really modernize the VA first of all, just in terms of health care, to complement the Sanders bill.  We have money in there to develop state-of-the-art technology so that the doctors can provide medical health care, to make sure that we have the modern equipment and the modern IT systems.
“Right now we need to be able to have the Department of Defense interfacing with VA because veterans electronic records come from DOD, but we have an inoperable system.  Our MilCon/VA bill works to fix this.  We also deal with this backlog.  You have no idea, Mr. President. My state of Maryland and my veterans benefits regional office in Baltimore has not had a good track record.
“I vowed to my veterans that I would try to break that backlog. And you know what?  Working together we've been able to do this.  In the FY15 bill, we fund an appeals process.  We train additional claims processors.  We require the management at the benefit administration to deal with the backlog working with the new administrator.  We have not only great ideas, but we actually put the money in the federal checkbook. Johnson and Kirk did it.
“And do you know how they did it?  Yes they talked to the VA and reviewed tons of GAO and Inspector General reports.  And guess what else they did, Mr. President?  They talked to the veterans.  They talked to these wonderful Volunteer Service Organizations.  So, Mr. President, I'm going to propose something later on today or later on this week.  I don't want to be the Chairwoman of a committee that's got her face pressed up against the glass looking longingly at the Senate floor with a bill I know will help the Veterans Administration with the heavy lifting to deal with the health care and disability backlog.
“I'm going to ask – because I believe in no surprises and no stunts – for unanimous consent to bring up the MilCon/VA on the third reading to be able to complement what we are doing here today.  And I want to be able to do that, and I hope that no Senator will object to it.
“Now in the spirit of full disclosure, because I truly have pledged to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle I would never be a surprise Chairwoman and I would never be someone that pulls gimmicks or stunts, I'm going to ask for that consent.  I want people to know about it so they can discuss it, chew on it, talk at their respective luncheon.  When I ask unanimous consent, I'm going to ask that it be brought up on third reading.  Why am I doing that?  Under the rules of the senate, if you bring up a bill on third reading, no amendments are considered.  So the question would be, ‘Senator Mikulski, are you trying to stiff-arm again’?
“No, I'm trying to get the job done.  I'm not trying to be stiff-arming the opportunity to offer amendments, but we have 72 hours left before we take this really long break and I don't think when you need health care for veterans, when you need to modernize technology and when you need to crack the backlog, you should go on break.
“So this afternoon I will ask unanimous consent.  I will turn to my 99 colleagues, and in the spirit of really meeting compelling needs of our veterans, I will ask that that bill come up so that as we move through the other two actions that we're taking to help veterans, we can do the MilCon/VA bill.
“So, Mr. President, I'm going to come to the floor today to talk about how we support a treasured ally.  How we look out for our neighbors in the west fighting our wildfires.  And how we deal with the crisis in Central America where children are being victimized and brutalized every day, so they're making that long march across the terrain and territory to come to the United States of America.
“Mr. President, I hope in the short time the Senate's going to be in session this week and this month and even this year, that we could use this week to meet the needs that are confronting us.  But most of all, I would hope that we do not just do part of the job for our veterans, we do this trifecta that I'm recommending - passing the Veterans Accountability Act, give us a new CEO for the Veterans Administration and have a chance to pass the MilCon/VA Appropriations bill.”