Budgets Cut Funding for Critical Veterans' Programs
Tue Oct 10, 2006 07:04

FYI - Congressman Spratt sent the following attached report on budget cuts for critical Veterans programs that have occurred under the Republican Controlled Congress.


October 5, 2006

Republican Budgets Cut Funding for Critical Veterans' Programs

Dear Democratic Colleague:

Last week, the Republican-controlled Congress recessed prior to enacting the appropriations bill that funds veterans' programs for 2007. Instead, it passed a continuing resolution that provides funding to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at the 2006 level for the first six weeks of the new fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2006. Consequently, the VA will receive $438 million less for veterans' health care over the first six weeks of the fiscal year than it would have available to spend if Congress passed the 2007 VA appropriations bill before adjourning. Unfortunately, these cuts continue a pattern of Republicans failing to adequately fund critical veterans' programs. By contrast, House Democrats have repeatedly offered budgets and amendments to appropriations bills to adequately fund veterans' services.

Please find the attached report prepared by the House Budget Committee Democratic staff that documents how Republican budgets have repeatedly underfunded veterans' programs and how Democratic budgets would have adequately funded them. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call the House Budget Committee Democratic staff at 6-7200.



John M. Spratt, Jr.
Ranking Democratic Member
House Budget Committee
Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series profiling the candidates for U.S. Senate. A profile of Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., will appear Sunday, Oct. 15.

GREAT FALLS - In a roomful of military veterans at a Great Falls bakery, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Tester is surrounded by a wall of anger and frustration.
“Don't get me started,” says Ed Reiman, a Vietnam combat veteran, when asked about problems with the military-political establishment. “There is no need for $1 billion-plus products when we've got no body armor for our boys.

“Too much is being spent on expensive toys. What happens when the s- hits the fan in Korea? In Iran? The Republicans have been pro-defense contractor, but not pro-defense.”

Next to speak is Richard Liebert, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

“In five years of fighting (in Iraq and Afghanistan), only one medal of honor has been given,” he says. “There's something fundamentally wrong.

“I was raised a Republican. But I'm this close to voting for you,” Liebert says, holding up his fingers, an inch apart.

Tester cracks a thin smile before responding: “We'll try to close that gap.”

As he leaves the bakery 30 minutes later, Tester reflects on what he heard inside, and utters what's become the theme of his campaign: “This country needs a change of direction.”

It's a phrase Tester will repeat a dozen times this September day on the campaign trail, whether he's speaking to veterans, high school students, reporters, fellow Democrats or research scientists distressed by cuts in federal funding.

Something's wrong in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., Tester says, and he wants to try to change it, for the benefit of the working man and woman he believes are getting the short end of the stick.

“We've got health care that people can't afford,” he says. “We've got $3 gasoline. We've got a national debt that's doubled in five years. And Conrad Burns has been a part of that. He really doesn't want to talk about those sorts of things.”

That's the other message Tester is trying to pound home: He's not Conrad Burns, and Burns, Montana's 18-year Republican incumbent, is part of the problem.

“I think Conrad has changed and he's lost touch with Montanans and the challenges that Montana faces,” Tester says. “He's become Washington. He didn't change it, and it changed him. It's time for a change. It's time to take the government back.”

Tester, 50, a Big Sandy farmer and a two-term state senator, is hoping this pitch will catapult him to victory in one of the most-watched U.S. Senate races in the country.

National Democrats believe they have a shot at winning majority control of the Senate, and for that to happen, a Tester victory is a must.

A Lee Newspapers poll of Montana registered voters in late September gave Tester a 47-40 lead over Burns, who's been subjected to a relentless attacks by Democrats and their allies over his alleged “corruption” and ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Burns and his Republican allies, however, have been fighting back just as hard, calling Tester a darling of the “liberal left” whose voting record and views are out of step with mainstream Montana.

Tester, sitting in a Great Falls barbershop while he gets his signature flat-top haircut, shakes his head as he watched a Burns campaign ad on TV, blasting him for voting many times to raise taxes in Montana.

“(Burns) has to paint me as something that I'm not, because he can't beat the guy I am,” Tester says. “Our challenge is to get the facts out. If they're successful in defining me as what I'm not, they've got a much better chance of beating me.”

Under his leadership at the 2005 Legislature, Democrats balanced the state budget without raising general taxes, while increasing state support for public schools, expanding health-care coverage and boosting alternative energy, he says to anyone who will listen.

Tester, the state Senate president, is relatively new to Montana's political scene, having been a state senator just shy of seven years. His district is in north-central Montana, covering miles of farming country and portions of the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

He grew up on the family grain farm west of Big Sandy and operates the 1,800-acre spread today with his wife, Sharla. His son, brother and son-in-law have been helping on the farm during Tester's run for Senate.

It's an organic farm, meaning the Tester family doesn't use pesticides on its crops.

Tester, who plays the trumpet despite missing three fingers on his left hand, earned a music degree from the College of Great Falls and worked as a music teacher at Big Sandy from 1978-80.

But Tester says he always intended to make a living as a farmer.

“At about age 8, I decided this is what I wanted to do,” he says. “I liked it. I thought it was fun. Sitting on a tractor for 12 or 14 hours a day, most people wouldn't think of that as fun.”

Growing up, Tester says, politics was a subject of family table talk, and he was student body president at Big Sandy High School and a school board member as an adult. But Tester didn't jump into state politics until 1998, when he ran for and won an open seat in the state Senate.

Tester says he ran because he was upset with the Legislature's unwillingness to adequately fund public schools and the passage of the 1997 utility deregulation bill, which he thought was a mistake.

The affable Tester rose quickly to a leadership position during his second session in 2001 and became Democratic Senate minority leader in 2003, after winning election to a second term. Then, in 2004, Democrats won the Senate majority for the first time in 12 years - and Tester became the body's president.

Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings, the second-ranking Senate Republican in the 2005 Legislature, says Tester usually had a laid-back style as leader - but exercised partisan power when it suited him in 2005.

Tester and the Democrats changed Senate rules to enable him to appoint members of key committees on school funding, Stapleton says. And when push came to shove, Tester was mostly about pushing the agenda of Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, he says.

Stapleton also says while Tester might cultivate a conservative image, he almost always came down on the left on social, moral and environmental issues, such as gay rights, abortion, energy development and mining.

“He did not allow himself to be outflanked by the left,” Stapleton says. “When there were questionable issues, and you could be moderate or more to the left, he sided with those in his caucus that were on the left.”

Among fellow Democrats, Tester is wildly popular, revered as a straight-shooting, down-to-earth guy who's dedicated to populist causes that Democrats hold dear.

“I don't know anybody who dislikes him,” says Sen. Jon Ellingson of Missoula, who was Senate majority leader under Tester at the 2005 Legislature. “Jon has a great way with people. He's quick to laugh, but he's passionate about the issues that are facing the state and the country.”

Ellingson says Tester did exercise power over key school-funding committee appointments at the 2005 session, but that Democrats felt it necessary to guide this critical issue.

A Supreme Court order had declared state funding of schools inadequate, and Democrats wanted to address it properly, Ellingson says. The result was a 13 percent increase in state funding of schools over two years and a promise of more funding in the future.

“I expected him to guide us to the fulfillment of (goals) that were a high priority for us and the state,” says Ellingson, such as school funding, increased funding for health care programs and promoting alternative energy. “I thought he did a great job to provide the energy to fulfill those goals.”

As Tester campaigned in Great Falls, Choteau and Conrad on a wet and chilly September day, the reception was warm among fellow Democrats, who seem almost giddy over the prospect of a Tester victory.

“People call me an optimistic person, so I'm going to take this opportunity to introduce our next U.S. senator, Jon Tester,” says Lora Weir, chairwoman of the Teton County Democratic Central Committee, as she presents Tester to a gathering at the Outpost Deli and Ice Cream Parlor in Choteau.

At Great Falls High School, some 500 students fill an auditorium to see Tester, whose introduction is greeted by an eruption of applause, whoops and cheers.

Tester takes questions from the student audience for nearly an hour, at one point calling on a girl wearing a “Conrad Burns for Senate” T-shirt.

She asks Tester how he can be pro-education when he voted against a pair of Republican bills at the 2001 Legislature that offered scholarships or incentives to Montana college students or graduates.

The pointed question elicits a ripple of applause from the crowd, and Tester answers: Democrats passed “double-digit” funding increases for education last year, and those Republican bills “just nibbled around the outside” of the issue and weren't a good solution.

Tester ducks a tough question or two and gives vague answers to a few others, but is clearly ready when someone asks him to describe in one sentence why people should vote for him.

“I won't even use a sentence,” he says. “I'll just use one word: honesty.”

Tester also doesn't mince words on the Iraq war, ripping into the Bush administration and Republicans for mismanaging the war on terror.

“I'm not an advocate of torture,” he tells the gathering in Choteau. “I don't think it gets you good information and I don't think it's what the country has been about.

“I've said from the beginning, the president needs to have a plan to withdraw. We can't afford an open-ended commitment in Iraq. I've supported the war in Afghanistan and the war on terror. I think the war in Iraq has taken our focus off the war on terror. The war in Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.”

As he travels between stops, Tester is asked whether he's worried about the “liberal” charge sticking, and if it's accurate.

“To me, ‘liberal' means open to change, and I think the country does need change,” he says. “You've got people working two and three jobs. It's time we put a focus on making the middle class vibrant again and not make the middle class the working poor.”

At a Democratic barbecue in Conrad, nearly 100 people have turned out on a rainy, cold evening to see Tester, crammed into the garage and tented patio at the home of Larry and Ann Boettcher.

There, Tester delivers the same message, the one he hopes Montanans will heed come November: “If you get me, you'll get honest representation that puts Montana first. I'm not going to Washington, D.C., to improve my quality of life. I'm going to Washington to improve your quality of life. That's my motivation.”

Jon Tester

Office sought: U.S. Senate.

Salary: $165,200.

Political party: Democrat.

Age: 50.

Birthdate and place: Aug. 21, 1956, in Havre.

Home: Twelve miles east of Big Sandy.

Occupation: Farmer.

Family: Wife, Sharla; grown son and daughter.

Education: Graduate of Big Sandy High School, 1974; bachelor's degree in music, College of Great Falls, 1978.

Employment: operated family grain farm, 1978-present; part-time elementary music teacher, Big Sandy public schools, 1978-1980.

Military: None.

Political experience: State senator from District 15, 1999-2006; served as Senate president in 2005-06; Big Sandy School Board member, 1983-1992; served on Big Sandy Soil Conversation District.

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