Transcript of Pelosi Weekly Press Conference Today
Contact: Drew Hammill, 202-226-7616
Washington, D.C. – Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi held her weekly press conference today in the Capitol Visitor Center. Below is a transcript of the press conference:
Leader Pelosi. Good morning, everyone. As we all know, as we began Memorial weekend, tragedy struck at UC Santa Barbara. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families and friends of those who lost loved ones, and with the wounded still fighting to heal and recover, with the students and the entire campus community.
The actions of this lone gunman were barbaric and horrific. Again, as we all know, such violence has no place in our society, no matter where or when it happens. As we said in the wake of shootings in Newtown, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine and daily on the streets of our cities, action is needed to prevent gun violence, action is needed to keep dangerous weapons out of those who would do harm to others and to themselves, action is needed to honor our oath to protect and defend. That is the oath we take when we become Members of Congress. Almost anyone in public service does.
Congress must act without delay to reduce gun violence across our country, and we have an opportunity now with two bipartisan initiatives: one, the bipartisan amendment, Thompson, King, and Esty, to add $19.5 million to help states improve submissions to the national background check system. This is a system that works. It has bipartisan support on the bill. Today on the floor we are going to try to add that funding. Bipartisan – there is a bipartisan Thompson-King bill you are familiar with to expand and strengthen Brady background checks nationwide. One hundred eighty-nine Members are on the bill.
As more details emerge about the Santa Barbara shooter, it is clear that we must keep guns away from those at risk, again, of hurting themselves or hurting others. That does not include over 95 percent, or more than that, of people who have mental health challenges and do not pose any threat of harm or any danger.
For a long time, Congressman Thompson and Congressman Barber have been working on legislation to address these issues. Tomorrow, Representative Thompson will unveil a new bill, which is Thompson-Perlmutter – who has been very much a part of the “Promoting Healthy Minds for Safer Communities Act” to strengthen mental health intervention and research, keep guns away from those who shouldn't have them. And then on a broader mental health bill, Congressman Barber's bill to make much needed investments in the mental health system, prevention and national mental health strategy – that early intervention and prevention.
On Monday, again, we marked Memorial Day. When I was a little girl, it was either called Memorial Day or Decoration Day – that's history to you; that’s my youth – and we remembered and honored each generation of Americans – it started actually at the time of the Civil War – who were and still wear our nation's uniform.
We must always serve our veterans as they have served us. We must honor the pledge the military makes. On the battlefield we leave no soldier behind, and when they come home, we leave no veteran behind. Yesterday the VA's Inspector General produced a preliminary report on the Phoenix VA health facility showing that veterans were left behind. This is intolerable. The findings of this report are troubling and grave, of course. They are unacceptable, unconscionable and unworthy of the service of our men and women in uniform.
It is imperative that the VA act to ensure accountability throughout the system. Secretary Shinseki is immediately adopting and implementing the recommendations of the report. This is an interim report, by the way. We will see more. As I said last week, before this report, some of the allegations could be criminal; at least the IG's report references potential criminal charges. Certainly what was done is dishonest. We will see what else – this dishonesty and delay in meeting the needs of veterans must be investigated, if necessary and appropriate, by the Justice Department. We're still waiting for a full accounting of all of the facts. As we do, we must continue to enact fact-based, evidence-based changes as we learn more about the Phoenix VA facility and others across the country.
We must support VA funding to serve the influx of veterans resulting from two wars in this century, two million more veterans added to the list in the last five years – two million. The absorptive capacity for that would be challenging under any circumstance. It certainly is here. We must act to confront these – you know, we talked last week about just looking at this and saying: what would it would be if it were not the system that it is? Let's turn it upside down. Let's think in an entrepreneurial way. What can be – what services can be appropriately administered to veterans, not necessarily on a VA campus? That doesn't mean some of the challenges that veterans face, specifically whether it results from amputation, PTSD and other things that maybe have to be at a VA facility, but federally accredited health facilities can perhaps absorb some of the challenge that is there.
But, again, we have to look at it – just as we looked after 9/11 at what we needed in terms of a cabinet position on homeland security – what do we need to do for the Veterans Administration to meet the needs of people?
I had a reception honoring Senator Dole last week, Senator – Secretary Dole, Elizabeth Dole, and it was really honoring caregivers. And it's really amazing to think that many of our veterans from previous wars are aging, and so we have about five million caregivers for veterans in our country; 1.1 million of them from this century, from the Afghan and Iraq wars – caregivers. The war takes a terrible, terrible toll as war, but the aftermath – and we really have to be prepared for the aftermath. And, again, the Veterans Administration has its challenges over time, but to absorb two million more veterans from this century – that is a tall order.
I am so pleased that President Obama has announced earlier this week the longest war in American history is now coming to an end. The war in Afghanistan is ending, in my view, responsibly. Our troops are coming home. Responsibility for Afghan security is returning to the Afghans themselves. We have reached this moment thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of our troops and the generosity of their families.
After more than a decade of conflict comes to a close, we must remember this endless war abroad, again, has its cost here at home. Our service members have done everything asked of them, and done so with courage and excellence. We cannot think incrementally about how we meet their needs. We have to think in a bigger way to address the transformations that we need. That could mean increasing the number of primary care doctors. We have to do that anyway for our healthcare system, certainly for our veterans hospitals and meeting their needs. That could mean debt forgiveness for those primary care docs, which we already do have in certain instances, but for a longer stay at a VA facility. Again, there are all kinds of interactions that we can bring into play, and we have to do it, and we have to do it soon.
As you may recall, when I became Leader, we planted a flag for our veterans. We meet regularly with the veterans service organizations. They have given us their priorities over time. This one was something called concurrent receipt, which you may not know. It's otherwise known as the veterans disability tax. They also were concerned about survivor benefits and the rest, but with the idea that one would – as the majority, we would deal in a much bigger way with advanced appropriations, with a veterans budget and the rest. And those were promises that we kept to them, drastically increasing resources available to the VA. President Obama was very much a part of that when he became President, but we started even before that. And so to see some of those resources not used to the fullest extent is very disappointing, to say the least. But you know what? We just have to deal with it, manage the issue, correct the situation, do so as soon as possible, subjecting everything to scrutiny as to: does this work? Does this get the job done for our veterans? It's very important.
Leader Pelosi. Yes, sir.
Q: Madam Leader, my understanding is you spoke with Secretary Shinseki yesterday.
Leader Pelosi. I did.
Q: Could you describe what he was telling you or asking of you, and what, if any, advice did you give him on this situation?
Leader Pelosi. Well, the purpose of the Secretary's call was to tell me that the interim report had come forth, and that he had put out a statement on it, and the interim report – we were expecting a final, you know, at some point, that we would have a final report. The interim report was very important, because it told us where we are at this time and more to come.
What he did say is that the IG had suggested that there be no more dismissals until he was – the IG, Office of the Inspector General – was finished with his report; that the dismissals that had occurred were not in opposition to what the IG was saying, but that there should be no more. And, of course, the most telling part of the IG report was the delay in dealing with the needs of our veterans, which is, again, unconscionable. And so that's what we talked about.
Q: And what did you – did you offer him any advice on how to handle this?
Leader Pelosi. Well, I think he knows the respect that I have for him. The four star general is a decorated veteran, as a person who has demonstrated great courage by also speaking out against – saying: “It's going to take much more, many more troops to accomplish what we want to accomplish,” what the Administration then wanted to accomplish in Iraq. I thought that was very courageous of him. So I have a high – a great deal of respect for him. So he knows that.
We were really focusing yesterday on that report and the rest, and the assurance that we were all there to help to do whatever was necessary for our veterans. I do believe that it – and if your point is where do you go from here? I don't know what – I think it rewards those who have been misleading the Secretary to say he should go because they misled him. But on the other hand, we have to just get the facts as to what that was and make evidence based decisions.
Q: The report makes it clear that they have found scheduling schemes like this dating back almost a decade.
Leader Pelosi. Right.
Q: So was the VA and was Congress turning the other cheek?
Leader Pelosi. No, I don't know that we were – turning the other cheek is the phrase. Certainly the VA was not forthcoming in what they put forth. They certainly were not telling Congress that they were playing with the facts in terms of what the lists were. You know, that was their little secret.
One might infer from the IG's report that it was so that they could get bonuses for shortening the time that veterans had to wait, shortening the list of those who were on the waiting list. I think that that was dishonest, perhaps illegal. But if you're not getting the information, if you're not getting the information from them, then the burden rests with them. But we have to intensify, and that is why I said we have to look at every aspect of this, the VA, the oversight of Congress and the rest of it, to say how can we do this better. Because lives are at stake.
Q: But the Inspector General said they were putting out public reports…
Leader Pelosi. …That were wrong.
Q: …for almost a decade.
Leader Pelosi. …That were wrong. That were wrong. So that's why I say this has to be looked at by the Justice Department, in my view.
Q: Madam Leader Pelosi. Edward Snowden did an interview with Brian Williams that aired last night in which he said that he considered himself a patriot, and he also expressed his desire to come back to the United States. First off, can I get your reaction to that? But also, is there is a scenario or do you think there is any room for negotiation to have Edward Snowden come back to the United States and not face charges on espionage?
Leader Pelosi. Well, I don't know if the charges are espionage, but the fact – here's the thing: if you saw something in government that you thought was wrong, and you believed that you had no recourse but to expose it, what would be the justification to exposing all of the information that Snowden exposed? So, you know, any good intention about saying: “I did a good thing for my country because I let the world know that they were doing this surveillance which I don't think would be right,” how does that justify jeopardizing sources and methods and revealing all – what, we don't know the number; I don't know the number, perhaps you do; but I don't think there's a number that's been confirmed about the number of documents – but they are in the hundreds of thousands of documents. That was wrong, and there really – that's against the law.
So is there something that could be done in terms of – I don't think that's patriotic. I don't think that's patriotic. Now, again, what is the charge, where do you go from here? I don't really think that we should set a precedent that says if you reveal millions of pages, millions of documents, that that's a patriotic thing, and you are off free and clear.
Now, let me add to that. You have no idea – again, you know, I have a long history in intelligence. How could this ever have happened? Who was accountable at the NSA for someone having access? With one person having access – not even a high level person that you might say: “Okay, somebody trusted that person.” How could one person have had that opportunity? I think that we have not heard that whole story, and I keep asking that question: how did this happen? Because as much as I have criticized the release of the documents, who is responsible for that at the NSA, and why aren't we hearing more about that? And I think that there's culpability there, too.
Q: Madam Leader, back to the VA for just a moment here. I really – you might not have been as dialed in for the hearing that went very late last night…
Leader Pelosi. No, I didn't.
Q: …as some of us were, but the question that kept coming up, and I am curious about your conversation with General Shinseki, if – Dr. Lynch, who was one of the main witnesses who they brought last night…
Leader Pelosi. Right.
Q: He kept insisting, and insisted to several of us later that – he said there were no secret lists. He said this was a bookkeeping issue. Did Shinseki share or shed any light on what this dispute is when one of his people says: “No, there was no secret list; we were trying to make things more efficient?” Did you ask him about that?
Leader Pelosi. No. I didn't know about it until Dr. Lynch testified last night that Dr. Lynch was making that representation. Clearly he didn't know; should have known, maybe should have known. I just don't know enough about that set of facts. That's why I said we have to get the evidence, it has to be fact-based as to who knew what and who was responsible for what, but really that there would be dishonesty in how these lists were kept as to when somebody – if you were on the list and you died, no problem, right, for the VA. You were no longer on the list while you were waiting to be heard. And this is shameful in every way. We will find out if it's criminal.
But we did not talk about what the testimony was last night, because I didn't know about it at the time, so I didn't know to ask about it.
Q: Madam Leader?
Leader Pelosi. Yes, sir.
Q: VA Chairman Miller is putting together legislation that would say: if you’ve been on the waiting list for 30 days and haven’t gotten care, you can go see a private doctor on the VA’s dime. What do you think of that approach? Will that solve the problem, and what more needs to be done beyond that?
Leader Pelosi. I have said, as I said last week: we have federally qualified health facilities that people could go to. Because it’s not just a waiting list. It’s geography. As I’ve traveled around the country and talked to veterans, a big part of accessibility is logistics – is getting there. And what does it cost to get there, and the rest? And how much do we pay veterans to be able to fund their transportation, and the rest? You know, it’s a very personal set of responsibilities. So I don’t have any problem with that.
But I do understand when our veterans do say back to us: “That’s interesting. But there are certain injuries that we have – whether it’s PTSD, or whether it’s amputations and other things – that we really do need to have these veterans hospitals and clinics and all the rest up to par, in terms of being able to receive us.” An appendectomy might be one thing and an amputation another. And so, it isn’t a panacea. But I would certainly be open to that, because of volume and because of geography.
Q: Are you concerned at all that a party that has not been particularly open to government run healthcare might be moving more towards a privatized veterans care program?
Leader Pelosi. Well I think that – I don’t know that they are moving towards privatized. I don’t think that’s how they see it. But we want the care to be given where it works for the veterans. So you weigh equities, so that’s an equity that they have to weigh as well. This is going to take more money. In other words, to bring the VA hospitals and clinics and facilities to where they need to be to produce results in a timely fashion is going to cost some money. So how do you spend that money? Do you spend it intensifying the VA facilities? Or do you spend some resources making other care – this is not an unknown thing. Years ago, military personnel could have access to other hospital care. CHAMPUS – this was a while back. And then, some of my colleagues who are veterans have said to me, and some friends who are veterans have said: “The card we got to take any place for care really wasn’t worth as much as you might think it is.”
So if we are to go down another path, we have to do it right. Okay so, it’s not: “Well this isn’t this, so therefore it must be better.” So let’s just see how that works. But to understand the cost of war – and that cost of war involves the care that goes with it. And the upside that many people survive war because of equipment and the rest ended up with some unseen scars of war that we have to deal with. And as I said, five million: in the past decade since Afghanistan and Iraq, 1.1 [million] caregivers at home. One of them told me a story that she had to cut back on work because her daughter had a severe injury from Afghanistan. And then she lost her job, and now she’s lost her unemployment insurance.
Again, we have to understand that the needs of our veterans go beyond the Veterans Administration. It’s about creating jobs, creating a future worthy of their sacrifice. It’s about a community that recognizes the ripple effect of their injuries – to their families, and the rest – and also that they need some other kinds of assistance. Education: we were very proud of our GI bill. Our initiatives were the biggest initiatives since World War II. We’re very proud of that. But some also need food stamps, and they need a raise in the minimum wage. They’re in our community. So again, what lifts everybody up lifts everybody up – including our veterans. And what is harmful – like not having unemployment benefits – tens of thousands of veterans don’t have that. So we’re talking about one thing specifically here. But we have to think in a bigger way, as to how we honor their service and build a future worthy of their sacrifice.
Q: So more than 70 Members of Congress have now called for the Secretary to resign, including at least 15 of your House Democratic colleagues. What's the case for him to stay, and how come you haven't gotten there yet, especially after you said you've read this report, and you said it's intolerable, it's unconscionable? Why haven't you gotten there yet?
Leader Pelosi. I thought I mentioned that. I thought I said when there has been – what the report talks about is what happened within the Veterans Administration. Is the issue served by saying: “Okay, those people did that, they kept the information from the Secretary and from the Congress; now let's reward them by removing the Secretary?” Or maybe we keep the same person there who is reviewing the same set of facts. We'll see. We'll see. But I really do think we have to be careful about thinking that just because you remove the top person means that you've changed the systemic problem that exists in the organization – 10 years before Shinseki, or 5 years at least before Shinseki became the Secretary. So that's why I'm not there.
And as I said, I have a high regard for the Secretary. He honors our country with his service, he has for his whole life in service, but also by willing to make the sacrifice to serve in this position.
The facts will take us to a place that says where we should go next, and evidence-based decision-making is what I think is important to do. It's easy to call for somebody at the top to go. Is it a solution, is it an answer remains to be seen. I respect those who've made their own decision about it, because it's hard, especially when we're talking about our veterans and the impact that it has on their families and the sacrifice they have made for our country.
Again, on the battlefield, we leave no soldier behind, and when they come home, we leave no veteran behind. This is an oath, this is a pledge, this is a commitment, and we have to get this done, and now we have to put it on a path of getting it done right. Very serious.
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