11/07/2007 — 

MR. REED: Mr. President, I am pleased this afternoon to recommend the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and related agencies division of this conference report to the Senate. This is an extremely important and time-sensitive funding measure, and I urge my colleagues to adopt it without delay as part of the Labor and Health and Human Services conference report and send it to the President to be signed into law.

I am particularly honored to be presenting this measure to the Senate on behalf of the chairman of the subcommittee, Senator Tim Johnson. We have worked closely throughout the entire appropriations process, and the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs provisions before the Senate today are the product of a thoroughly collaborative and a cooperative effort, but the leadership was provided by Senator Johnson. I appreciate Senator Johnson's graciousness in allowing me to offer this conference report on his behalf.

I would also like to thank the ranking member of our subcommittee, Senator Hutchison, for her excellent work and cooperation in developing this conference report and the chairman and ranking member of the full committee, Chairman Byrd and Senator Cochran, for their strong support and guidance in shepherding this legislation to the floor.

The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs conference report before the Senate today is fair, balanced, and a bipartisan piece of legislation that deserves the full support of the Senate.

The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs portion of this conference report is critically important to our Nation's military forces and to our veterans. It includes $64.7 billion in total discretionary funding--$3.7 billion over the President's budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs. This level of funding includes $37.2 billion for veterans health care, a high-water mark in the history of the Department--the largest sum of money ever appropriated for veterans health care. Indeed, it is consistent with the independent budget the veterans organizations have proposed year after year. This is the first time we could match their goal with our appropriation. We have provided $2.6 billion more than the President requested for veterans health care and $373 million more than the veterans service organizations sought in the independent budget. We have, in fact, gone beyond what the independent veterans organizations have suggested in their budget. This level of funding is a clear demonstration of the importance this Congress places on the health and welfare of our Nation's veterans.

The funding included in this conference report supports a myriad of programs crucial to America's veterans, including funding the veterans hospitals, clinics, and veterans centers, as well as cutting-edge research into critical areas of health care such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result of the asymmetric combat we are witnessing in Iraq and Afghanistan, this Nation is producing a new generation of veterans, and they have markedly different service-related injuries than were experienced in previous wars. Thankfully, more service men and women are surviving their war wounds, but many are surviving with catastrophic physical and mental injuries.

The nature of veterans health care for new veterans is changing dramatically, while the demand for short-term and long-term health care for veterans of previous wars is rapidly increasing as the veteran population ages. We have two currents rushing together: veterans of World War II and Korea who are now in their seventies and eighties requiring more care simply because of their age, and a new generation of veterans coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom are sustaining neurological injuries such as traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. This other stream of veterans is flooding into our system, and we have to care for all of these veterans. That is why this legislation is particularly timely and particularly important.

All of the challenges to the Department of Veterans Affairs are enormous. The conference report before the Senate today addresses those challenges. With this funding, we are providing the resources for the Department to meet the needs of both aging veterans from yesterday's wars and emerging veterans from today's conflict.

The conference report also includes critically needed funding for military construction. It provides a total of $21.5 billion for military construction and an $8.4 billion increase over last year's funding level, with most of the increase directed toward implementing the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Program.

I am particularly pleased that the conference report includes $1.1 billion for the Nation's Guard and Reserve forces--a 34.5-percent increase over the President's budget request. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed an unprecedented demand on the Nation's Guard and Reserve Forces. Yet the President's budget slashed construction funding for several of the Guard and Reserve components. This conference report corrects that inequity. For example, it increases funding for the Army National Guard 25 percent over the President's budget request, and for the Air Guard, the conference report more than triples the President's budget request.

Military construction may not have the glamour of the Defense Department's sophisticated weapons and other programs, but it is, nevertheless, the bedrock of the Nation's military. Our troops must have sufficient funding to provide barracks, facilities for training and maintaining their equipment, and adequate housing for their families. Without the resources provided in this legislation, these crucial facilities could not be constructed. This legislation provides funding for an impressive array of military construction projects, the vast majority of which were requested by the President. All of the major construction projects added to the President's budget by the Senate have been fully vetted, are included in the authorization bill, and are encompassed within the service's Future Years Defense Plan.

Some have complained that the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs conference report should not be coupled with the Labor and Health and Human Services conference report. I will have more to say about that later, but I would like to make the point now that these two bills complement each other in many respects, and it makes perfectly good sense to link them together.

There are more than a few crossover items between the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill and the Labor and Health and Human Services appropriations bill. These include, to name a few, the Labor Department's Veterans Employment and Training Program, which includes the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program; the Department of Education's Impact Aid Program, which assists school districts whose student population is swelled by military dependents; and the Traumatic Brain Injury Program directed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control. There are numerous programs that provide benefits to veterans and their families that are included in the Health and Human Services program. Veterans are not simply veterans. They are members of communities. They have children. They have spouses. They require the services that are included not only in the Veterans' Administration bill but particularly their families in other legislation and other appropriations included in the Health and Human Services bill.

Something else, too, I think is important to stress, and I will do that in greater detail, these veterans as young men and women committed themselves to this country, not because they anticipated collecting veterans' benefits but because they wanted to make a difference. They wanted to ensure that--mercifully and hopefully--the next generation of Americans wouldn't have to go into combat, but beyond that, that all Americans would have a chance. It was not about ensuring elaborate tax loopholes or sophisticated financial transactions; they were fighting--and, sadly, being injured and too many dying--to give people a chance in this country, an opportunity to go to school, for children to get immunizations, and for bright, talented young people to go to college. That is why I think it is also essential that these two bills are being considered together, because if we provide for our veterans, they have earned it--and we should and we must and we will--but if we neglect the rest of the country, have we truly fulfilled and measured up to what they served and sacrificed for? I don't think so.

The Senate has before it a comprehensive and vitally important conference report for funding both Departments, both areas--the Department of Labor and Health and Human Services, the Education Department, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. We have the opportunity--I would argue, the obligation--to send a signal to the President of this country and to the Nation that we are not willing to play favorites among appropriations bills. Funding for health care for our veterans is clearly a priority, but it does not trump our commitment to fund health care services for all Americans or education programs or job training for those who need it, including veterans who participate in many of the Department of Labor programs.

I urge my colleagues to support this conference report in its entirety and send it to the President today.

Mr. President, I yield the floor and reserve the remainder of whatever time I may have.