July 18, 2023

Chairman Aguilar: Extreme MAGA Republicans are leading the country toward a reckless government shutdown

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar held a press conference alongside Representatives Raul Ruiz and Mikie Sherrill on how House Democrats are delivering for veterans through the historic PACT Act while extreme MAGA Republicans threaten veterans’ benefits through a reckless government shutdown.

CHAIRMAN AGUILAR: Good morning, good morning. Pleased to be joined with colleagues, Congressman Raul Ruiz and Congresswoman Mikie Sherril. 

We begin another week here of stark contrast between House Democrats and extreme MAGA Republicans. We’re strengthening the economy and growing the middle class while they take the country down a reckless government shutdown path. And they’re not ashamed of it. They’ve tried to tank our economy, brought culture wars into national security, and now, they’re ready to hold the government hostage. And it doesn’t bother them that working families could pay the price. When given the chance to do the right thing for the American people, time and time again, they have chosen a path toward chaos and dysfunction. 

Meanwhile, House Democrats will continue to put People Over Politics. A little less than a year ago, we passed the largest expansion in veterans' health care in this generation. Eighty-eight Republicans voted NO. This law was threatened by the Republican-led default crisis and will be on the chopping block once again in a Republican shutdown. That means that over 300,000 already approved veterans could lose out on their VA benefits. And that’s not including those expected to apply before an important deadline on August 9th. 

Let’s be clear – Republican extremism is a danger to our national security and undermines our nation’s commitment to veterans. Here to talk about that are a few of my colleagues, and I’ll first yield to Congressman Raul Ruiz.

REP. RUIZ: Thank you, Chairman. It's always a pleasure to be here with you. 

Hello, I'm Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz. I represent California's 25th congressional district in the House of Representatives. It's an honor to be here today with Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar, as well as Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Honoring Our PACT Act, the most expansive access to care for veterans in generations. 

Last year, I had the honor to work alongside ranking member Takano, our nation's VSOs and countless others to bring the PACT Act across the finish line. It was based from out of my bill, the Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, which gave a presumptive of benefits for 23 categories of illnesses and cancers for veterans who had been exposed to burn pits. And now, because of the fierce advocates like Burn Pits 360s, the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign War, the American Legion, the Wounded Warrior Project in Iraq and Afghanistan, Veterans of America and the stories of fallen heroes like my constituent Jennifer Kepner, who was exposed to toxic burn pits in Balad Air Force Base and later succumbed to pancreatic cancers, and many others whose courage has served as an inspiration to so many. 

Over 3.5 million veterans and their families will be able to access the benefits and care that they need and have earned and deserve. And we are already seeing the results. Since August 2021, the VA has completed over 33,000 claims, granted benefits to more than 25,000 veterans resulting in over $93 million in retroactive benefits payments. That's a huge deal. 

In fact, I got a text the other day from a wounded warrior fellow, who then became a veteran specialist staff in my district office, who's now living in Arkansas. And he texted me how prior to the PACT Act, one out of 10 veterans would get their claims accepted, nine out of 10 would be denied. And we reminisced on the struggles that it was to help get them the care and the benefits that they and their families needed. He says now, because of the fact that nine out of 10 claims are being approved. And so he was also instrumental in my staff team to get this over the finish line. And he's seeing the real-life effects of this in the lives of veterans being able to get the care that they need, and their families the benefits that they need to live a life with dignity. 

So, that is clear evidence amongst all the other statistics that I mentioned, how this bill is really improving the lives of our service members, our veterans. So now, one year later, after President Biden signed this monumental legislation into law, we have the opportunity to build on this progress and continuing delivering for our nation's veterans, servicemembers and military families by working to prevent exposure to toxic burn pits and other toxins once and for all. And we do that by putting People above Politics. We do that by putting aside the political game, the extreme agenda, that the House majority is pushing through Congress and focusing on improving the lives of everyday Americans. So today, as we look back on this victory for our nation's veterans, let's honor them and their service with actions, not just words, to continue making a difference in their lives.

REP. SHERRILL: Well, thank you. It is wonderful to be here today to celebrate the year anniversary of the Honoring Our PACT Act.

As a Navy veteran myself, I care very deeply about the veteran community. And a couple things happened when I first got into Congress. One, the Victim Compensation Fund for our 911 First Responders was running out of money. And two, we passed the Blue Water Navy Veterans Act. That was to take care of Vietnam-era veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange. And so, in seeing that confluence of events and seeing how important it is to care for people who have been exposed to toxic fumes. And seeing how long it took us to care for some of our Vietnam-era veterans, I knew how incumbent it was upon our Congress and my colleagues to pass legislation to take care of our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have been exposed to toxic fumes. And we needed to act quickly. We couldn't take decades to do that. We had to do it now because they and their families, and as you heard from Dr. Ruiz, are suffering today. 

And too many of them were being turned away at the VA, saying that there was not a cause and link. This was not a factor. So, this presumption was so incredibly important. But not just making sure they were able to get seen, but that the VA has the resources to implement this. And I'll tell you, as a veteran I work closely with my colleagues across the aisle who have also served, and it was shocking to me that in the debt ceiling fight – in the debt ceiling fight, we saw the GOP coming after the very support that our veterans needed to make sure that we did honor our pact with them to take care of them. 

And so, I was thrilled that in that negotiation, the Administration and our leadership was able to push hard and get that into some mandatory spending. But we are going to face the fight again, here as we come upon the appropriations process, and that's why it's so important that we keep pushing to support our veterans. Because again, those who have served our nation across the world deserve to be taken care of when they come home, especially with this exposure, which we call our generation's Agent Orange. So, that's why I'm so proud we're celebrating here, but here today to remind everyone that we need to continue this fight to ensure that we can in fact on our pact with our veterans, so it's wonderful to be here. And with that, I will turn it back over to the Chairman for questions.

Video of the full press conference and Q&A can be viewed here.