Floor and Committee Statements

“Mr. President, I thank [Senator Richard Blumenthal] but I also want to take this moment on the floor to praise him for the contribution he’s made to the committee over the last two years.

“I want to tell you a story. Richard became ranking member of the [Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs] the same year I became chairman. We met, and we made a commitment to one another we were going to move forward on a united veterans’ committee, to address the problems of our veterans and to do it in a bipartisan fashion.

“To set the tone for that, we introduced the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act, which passed unanimously in the committee and later 99-0 on the floor of the Senate in the first weeks of this Congress. We did so to set the table that, whatever the problem is, we should never let our pettiness and politics and partisanship stop us from helping a veteran.

“Because of Richard Blumenthal and his effort on suicide prevention and our commitment to make it bipartisan, we passed that unanimously early on in the session. Since that time, we have addressed other issues, as well. In fact, the bill that we discussed today which is named in part for Richard Blumenthal is, as he said a minute ago, a down payment on the continuing debt we owe to our veterans who have served us well.

“I said that the first day in the committee when I took over as chairman: There are no Republican veterans and no Democratic veterans. There are only American veterans.

“They are the Americans that fought for our flag, fought for our Constitution, fought for our liberty and fought for each of us.

“I’m proud to have fought with Richard in the foxhole of the United States Senate for our veterans.

“There is much left to be done. With the passage of this act today that is named after Senator Blumenthal and Congressman Jeff Miller who is retiring in the [U.S. House], we’re making another down payment on what we owe our veterans.

“There are other payments soon to come. I met earlier today with John McCain. We’ve made a commitment to make sure Veterans Choice is made permanent for our veterans and work to see to it that veterans have the best choice possible: not to privatize the [U.S. Department of] V[eterans] A[ffairs], but optimize the exposure of veterans to health care services wherever they need them.

“I met last night with Jon Tester, our colleague from Montana, who will replace Richard as the new ranking member on the committee. He is equally committed with us to see to it that we move beyond the current sunset of the Choice program, to solve the issues in the Choice program, as well as the other problems that confront our veterans.

“We’re a team of Americans, not Republican Americans or Democratic Americans, but committed Americans to see to it that our veterans get what was promised to them. As Senator Blumenthal said, this bill addresses homelessness. It addresses [veterans’] health care issues. It addresses [research on] the possible passage of exposure to toxic waste.... We do a lot on the court of appeals.

“We have 450,000 appeals in a backlog. We’re adding to judges in the appeals process, and we need to do more to expedite the appeal process. I was personally disappointed this year that as close as we got in dealing with the administration in finding a solution, we still fail to say to our veterans, ‘we’re going to solve your problem of waiting in line.’

“I had the sad duty of breaking into tears myself in the living room of a veteran two weeks ago in my hometown of Marietta, Ga., where a veteran who has been trying for years to get an appeal responded to and never getting an answer as to whether his appeal is justified or not.

“That is just not right.

“We can find a way in this country to get the manpower and womanpower necessary, make the moral commitment that’s imperative, and see to it our veterans who have an appeal get an expeditious answer and our veterans need to cooperate in that process by giving us all the backup data as fast as possible for every appeal that they ask for. But it is not right for an appeal to last as long as one that’s before us in the United States’ [Department of Veterans Affairs] today, [where that appeal] is 25 years old. That’s right. The oldest appeal is 25 years-old in the [Department of Veterans Affairs].

“I am committed and I make the commitment on the floor of the Senate today to work with Richard, Jon Tester, the members of our committee, and everybody in this body to see to it that we say to the 450,000 veterans who are waiting on appeal, ‘we’ll get you an answer and get it faster.’

“And the sons and daughters who are signing up today for the United States military, if you have a need for an appeal, we’ll see to it that you get an expeditious answer. They deserve the best, and no less than a thorough answer along with a response to the appeal that they make.

“It’s been a privilege and a pleasure for me the last two years to work as chairman of the Veterans’ [Affairs] Committee and to work with Richard Blumenthal. I commend him on the contribution he’s made. It’s equally great to work with his staff [who have] worked to see to it that we brought the best legislation possible to the floor of the Senate.

“I particularly want to thank Tom Bowman, my chief of staff who has made a lot of things happen the last two years. Things have really just begun in the Veterans’ Affairs [committee] of the United States Senate.

“We’re going to work together to reach the dreams we all have, to see to it that our veterans have seamless services, and that we pay back to them equally what we owe to them for what they have sacrificed and pledged for us: their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.

“As chairman of the committee, I will yield the floor to the senator from Pennsylvania by thanking Senator Blumenthal for his support and asking each of our members of the United States Senate to help us pass this down payment on the promise and the debt that we owe to the veterans of the United States of America.”