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Remarks by U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd

June 27, 2005

Taking Care of America's Veterans

Senator Byrd, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California joined to offer an amendment on Monday to provide more than $1.4 billion in emergency funding to fill a massive hole in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget. Revealed last week, the VA shortfall jeopardizes health care for Americaís veterans. Senator Murray warned the country and the Bush Administration that the VA would not be able to pay its bills because of a looming financial hole, but those warnings fell on deaf ears. The amendment would plug the holes in the VA budget so that no veteran is turned away because of a financial shortfall at the VA.

Senator Byrd, Senator Murray, and Senator Feinstein offered the bipartisan amendment to the Fiscal Year 2006 Interior and Related Appropriations bill. A vote on the amendment could come as early as Tuesday.

Our country is now involved in two wars: one in Afghanistan, and one in Iraq. Each day we read in the newspapers about the human toll of these wars. As of today, 1,730 troops have been killed in Iraq, and 194 have been killed in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But the toll of these wars is also borne by those who carry the scars of battle. In Iraq, more than 13,000 troops have been wounded, and in Afghanistan, 476 troops had shed their blood in service to our country.

The American people thank these service members for their sacrifice. However, late last week, Congress learned that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been shortchanged in its mission to provide medical care to these warriors, and all of the other men and women who have served in time of war before them.

This is a shame. If our nation owes just one thing to all of those who have risked their lives to defend our country, it surely must be, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, to ìcare for him who shall have borne the battle.î [Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865] It is a shock that the Administration has only now revealed that it has not budgeted the funds to fulfill this mission.

I offer an amendment on behalf of Senator Murray, myself, and Senator Feinstein to provide $1.42 billion in emergency funds to address the shortfall in health care funds for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of this figure, $600 million would be used to reimburse VA construction accounts that have been raided to pay for health care costs. Another $400 million would be used to reimburse other accounts that have been raided for the same purpose. Finally, an additional $420 million is included to compensate each Veterans Integrated Service Network, or VISN, for the additional expenses incurred because of the high caseload of wounded veterans. This $1.42 billion is urgently needed, and the Senate must not delay in providing the funds that are required to allow our veterans to see their physicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Earlier this year, the Senate rejected on a nearly party-line vote an amendment to the Iraq supplemental appropriations bill to add funding to VA health care. The Administration told Congress that additional funds were not needed to care for our veterans. We now know that this claim was wrong. According to the estimate provided to Congress by the Department of Veterans Affairs, VA funding is short $1 billion this year. Congress must act to care for our veterans. When it comes to our veteransí health care, half a loaf is not good enough.

Some may argue against this amendment by urging the Senate to wait for the Administrationís plan. However, according to VA testimony before the House last week, the Administration intends to respond to the shortfall on the cheap by robbing Peter to pay Paul. Mr. President, we have already waited too long for the Administration to recognize the needs of our veterans.

The Murray/Byrd/Feinstein Amendment is the Senateís opportunity to end this yearís shortchanging of veterans, and I urge my colleagues to support it.

MORE by Senator Byrd

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