Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Statement On On Senate Passage Of The “Minibus I” Conference Report

Today, the Senate will consider final passage of the “Minibus #1” conference report.  This package contains the Legislative Branch, Energy and Water Development, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Bills.

When we first considered this package in June, we held our first real debate on the Senate floor on an appropriations bill in a very long time.  We had eight roll call votes on amendments and adopted a managers’ package containing 32 more – taking a step toward returning the appropriations process to regular order. 

Today, Congress is poised to take another step by sending more than one bill to the President’s desk on time for the first time in more than a decade.  Now, this is not the package I would have written, and I am sure Chairman Shelby would say the same, but that is the nature of compromise, and it makes good, sensible investments in the American people.

The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill includes significant new investments in mental health and opioid abuse treatment, including $1 billion in new funding over fiscal year 2017 levels for mental health care programs and suicide prevention, and $454 million over fiscal year 2017 for opioid treatment and prevention. 

This bill also provides resources important to Vermonters.  It increases funding for long-term, non-institutional care programs like the Veterans Independence Program in Vermont, which partners with community providers to support veterans who prefer to continue living in their own homes, avoiding costly nursing home care and offering better quality of life.  It provides funding for homeless veterans programs, such as the Grant and Per Diem program that offers supportive transitional housing to homeless veterans, and it includes a $40 million increase for Supportive Services for Veteran Families to help veterans and their families secure permanent affordable housing. 

The bill nearly doubles funding for the popular Adaptive Sports Grant Program and expands it so that more service-disabled veterans, including those who suffer from invisible injuries like PTSD and brain injuries, can participate in life-long sports in their communities, or train to showcase their mental and physical training at national competitions.  This bill also includes a $40 million investment for the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and its evidence-based approach to the treatment of veterans bearing the hidden wounds of war.

However, I am extremely disappointed that House Republicans and President Trump refused to accommodate funding for the costs associated with the VA Choice program, which was transferred to the discretionary side of the budget under the MISSION Act.  This new program will face a shortfall beginning in May of 2019.  We do our veterans no favors when we make promises to them that we cannot keep. 

To solve this problem, we cannot just take funding from other programs for veterans, or terminate programs meant to help low-income Americans heat their homes, or for important research at the National Institutes of Health, as proposed by the President.  We must adjust the budget caps to accommodate programs for our veterans that have already passed Congress and been signed into law.  I will continue to pursue solutions to this funding gap to make sure veterans receive the quality care they were promised. 

The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill includes significant investments to support scientific research and make America more competitive in clean energy and other high-technology endeavors.  Congress rejected President Trump’s shortsighted attempt to eliminate ARPA-E, which researches and invests in new energy technologies, and increased its funding by $60 million over fiscal year 2018.  Thanks to the Bipartisan Budget Agreement, investments in the Office of Science are increased by $1.2 billion over fiscal year 2017, paving the way for new and groundbreaking scientific research.   We also increase funds for renewable energy.

And with Hurricane Florence set to make land fall on America’s east coast, this package includes the highest-ever level of funding for the Army Corps’ Civil Works program of nearly $7 billion.  For every dollar invested, it is estimated that there is a $16.60 return by mitigating flood damage and transportation rate savings from moving goods on our waterways. 

The Energy and Water bill also makes important investments in our rural communities through regional commissions, including $20 million for the four-state Northern Border Regional Commission.  We once again provide strong funding for the Weatherization Program, which helps so many families in Vermont and other northern states who struggle with high home heating prices during the cold winter months.  And I am pleased that the bill supports much needed repairs and improvements in our environmental infrastructure and energy infrastructure, and strengthens innovative ways to deliver these critical assets that will make Vermont and the entire country more resilient to the changing climate and violent weather events.

The Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill includes funding to pay Congressional interns for the first time.  A Congressional internship offers an entrance to a career in public service, but many dedicated, young adults do not have the means to spend a summer working for free in Washington or in our home districts.  By paying interns for their work, we open the door to a wider and more diverse pool of applicants looking to serve their country.

I have long realized the potential benefits to our country of providing this opportunity to talented young people from diverse backgrounds.  That is why since my first day in the Senate, in 1975, I made sure there were the resources available in my office to compensate our interns.  I am glad this opportunity will now be available in every office, both House and Senate.

For the first time in the Legislative Branch bill, we are also requiring Senate candidates to file electronic campaign finance reports, something the House has required since 1995.  This will increase transparency in campaign finance and finally bring the system into the 21st Century.

On the whole, this is a compromise bill that makes significant investments in the American people.  It was not an easy path to make this progress, but the Shelby/Leahy/McConnell/Schumer agreement has laid the bipartisan framework for a path forward.  This package has bipartisan support, is in line with the bipartisan budget agreement, and it is free of poison pill riders and other controversial authorizing language.  I commend Chairman Shelby for his leadership and thank Senators Alexander, Feinstein, Boozman, Schatz, Daines, and Murphy for their vital contributions. 

This is the only successful path forward for the remaining appropriations bills, and I am hopeful that House Republicans will continue to engage with this process. 

I also remain hopeful that President Trump will join this bipartisan and bicameral vision for the appropriations process. 

However, the President’s repeated shutdown threats are not helpful.

Just last week, at a campaign style rally, the President threatened to shut down the government after the midterm elections – an attempt that would avoid the immediate political consequences of his brash and short sighted decision to hold the American people hostage for his useless and ill-considered border wall, which he has repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for. 

A government shutdown is not a political talking point.  It has real consequences on real people, and I hope the President will leave his rhetoric at his rally and work with Republicans AND Democrats in Congress. 

In Congress, we are making bipartisan progress that has not been seen in appropriations for more than a decade.  This agreement on the first package of three appropriations bills lays a bipartisan foundation, and I urge support for its passage in the Senate.  I hope that we will continue down this path and pass the two additional minibus appropriations bills that are in Conference before the end of the fiscal year.  Funding the government is one of Congress’s most basic responsibilities, and we owe it to the American people to do our jobs.

I also want to thank the hard work of the staff.   My full Committee staff, Chuck Kieffer, Chanda Betourney, Jessica Berry, Jay Tilton and Jean Kwon.  As well as Chairman Shelby’s staff, Shannon Hines, Jonathan Graffeo and David Adkins.  As well as the staff on both sides of the aisle for each of the three subcommittees.  It takes a lot people to get a bill like this across the finish line, so I cannot name everyone at this time, but I would like to ask unanimous consent to put a full list of the staff in the record. 

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