WASHINGTON – Today, Senator Mike Lee asked for the Senate to pass a bill to fund veterans’ benefits by unanimous consent. The motion was quickly shot down by Democrats who provided little explanation for their opposition to funding veterans’ benefits.
“There are many things on which Republicans and Democrats do not agree, but whether or not to take care of our veterans should not be among those things,” said Sen. Lee during a floor speech in which he offered one of several Republican bills to keep the government open.
“These bills provide funding for things like veterans' disability benefits, the G.I. Bill and cancer research,” said Lee, referring to legislation being considered in the house. “These bills keep our national parks open and they make sure that our National Guard personnel get paid.”
“The president himself has asked Congress to do this… [W]hy is it that the President of the United States and the Democrats in the Senate are having such a hard time taking "yes" for an answer?”
Read the full transcript below:
Madam president, what we're being told by the majority is that we have to vote for everything in order to fund anything. Now, moments ago I proposed a unanimous consent request that, if approved, would provide for the immediate availability of mandatory funds generally controlled through the annual appropriations process for the Department of Veterans Affairs. I thank the Republican leader for making similar requests earlier and for other Republican colleagues for joining him in that and I look forward to making other similar requests in the coming hours.
Frankly, I'm a little stunned at some of the things that we're hearing from the other side of the aisle. It's difficult for me to understand the objections to bills the House passed last night and the ones that Senate Republicans are trying to pass today.
First, this legislation doesn't fund anything that's controversial. None of the pieces of legislation being worked on and passed by the House right now and last night can be considered controversial. These bills provide funding for things like veterans' disability benefits, the G.I. Bill and cancer research. These bills keep our national parks open and they make sure that our National Guard personnel get paid.
There are many things on which Republicans and Democrats do not agree, but whether or not to take care of our veterans should not be among those things.
Second, the president himself has asked Congress to do this. I'll remind my friends exactly what he said just a few days ago, speaking to what might happen during a government shutdown. He said:
"Office buildings would close, paychecks would be delayed, vital services that seniors and veterans, women and children, businesses and our economy depend on would be hamstrung. Veterans, who've sacrificed for their country, will find their support centers unstaffed. Tourists will find every one of America's national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Smithsonian to the Statue of Liberty immediately closed. And, of course, the communities and small businesses that rely on these national treasures for their livelihoods will be out of customers and out of luck."
Now, the Republicans in the House of Representatives took the president of the United States at his word and started immediately to draft bills to make sure that these priorities receive funding. In response, Senate Democrats have said that this plan to fund things like veterans, national parks and others was fundamentally unserious. They said Republicans were playing games. And the biggest head scratcher of them all, the president issued a veto threat for bills that fund the very things that he said he wanted to fund, that he would like Congress to fund.
And so it makes me wonder, why is it that the President of the United States and the Democrats in the Senate are having such a hard time taking "yes" for an answer? The fundamental objection, as I understand it, has been that because these bills passed by the House of Representatives last night and those being passed today, within the next couple of hours, because those bills don't fund everything, they're objectionable. In other words, we have to fund everything or we may fund nothing.
I have to remind my colleagues that normally, under regular order of appropriations, Congress will vote on and ultimately approve a dozen or so separate segmented appropriations measures, making sure that we address each area within our federal government separately so that there's adequate time to consider what it is that we're spending money on.
This is a big government, one that spends between $3.5 and $4 trillion a year. And it's important that we break this up in pieces. But over the last 4 1/2 years or so, we've been operating on the basis of back-to-back continuing resolutions, measures that basically require us to fund everything or fund nothing.
And so what this proposal does, what the Republicans in the House of Representatives are quite wisely doing is saying, let's start with those areas as to which there is the most broad-based bipartisan consensus and let's keep government funded at current levels, as a continuing resolution would do within those areas and let's build consensus and let's start funding the government in those areas where there isn't significant objection.
What I don't hear from my colleagues is a substantive objection to what it does fund. What I hear is what they're objecting to is what it doesn't fund. So let's pass those things that we can agree should be funded and let's move forward. And I think we can get most of this resolved fairly quickly.
Two of the bills in the House of Representatives that have been passed in this fashion have quite significantly received substantial bipartisan support and I expect that the rest of them will receive bipartisan support as well. In the middle of an unfortunate government shutdown surrounded by all this divisive rhetoric, Republicans and Democrats came together in the House overwhelmingly to approve these bills. I think we owe it to the country to show that we can do the same thing in the Senate, acting upon the advice of our better angels and acting in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation to keep our government funded.
Fourth, this is a path forward that was first introduced by none other than the distinguished Majority Leader himself. On Monday afternoon, Senator Harry Reid from Nevada, the Senate Majority Leader, asked for unanimous consent to pass a bill that ensured our active-duty military would be paid in the event a shutdown. And in a matter of minutes, it was done.
So I ask my friends across the aisle: Was Senator Reid playing games? Was that unserious? Just Monday, just a few days ago we passed something that didn't fund everything but it did fund something, it funded the government to the extent necessary to allow us to continue paying our active-duty military personnel. So was that unserious?
Of course not. So why is it unserious when we try to fund veterans disability payments or cancer research or our National Guard? Why is it all of a sudden playing games to try to keep our national parks open? What exactly has changed since Monday? Why can we come together to pass a bill funding military pay but not to fund veterans' benefits?
And finally, none of these bills has any connection to the implementation of Obamacare. I understand that my friends across the aisle support that law, despite its numerous failings and indications that it's harming the American people and the economy, that it's hurting jobs and threatening the affordability of health insurance.
I understand that some of my friends across the aisle want to protect that law. And we're going to continue to have that debate about that law. Especially in light of all the problems people are having with signing up with the exchanges, not to mention the ongoing problems of job losses, wage reductions, hours lost and people losing their health coverage because of Obamacare. Especially in light of all those problems, we should continue having that debate, but that debate isn't essential to every aspect of our government's funding.
Let me be clear: We will do everything in our power to protect the American people from the harmful effects of Obamacare. That fight will most certainly continue. And my friends across the aisle are welcome to join that debate, as I'm sure they will.
But none of these bills, none of the bills that we're considering today relates in any way to the implementation of Obamacare. For this moment, at the very least, we should focus on keeping our promise to the people who have sacrificed the most to keep this country free.
I applaud the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. I applaud the Republicans and the Democrats who have supported legislation to help keep our government funded in these critical areas. We can come together if we pursue a step-by-step process for funding our government. This more closely resembles the way we should have been appropriating in the first place. This is the best way forward. It's the way to help minimize the pain Americans are experiencing as a result of this unfortunate shutdown.
Thank you, madam president.