We must ‘do right’ here in America, too

We must 'do right' here in America, too by Tom Daschle U.S. Senate Minority Leader It has been my experience traveling throughout the state that while most South Dakotans are prepared to help rebuild Iraq, they also believe we should not forget the urgent needs of our own country.

That responsibility starts with the needs of our troops, but most people believe that if we can build roads and schools in Iraq, then we ought to be able to do the same here at home.

A while back, Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services Department, defended the Administration's plan to give health care to all Iraqi citizens by saying, "Even if you don't have health insurance in America, you get taken care of." He went on to suggest that meant we have universal health care in the United States.

A lot of South Dakotans, including the 12 percent who don't have health insurance, were awfully surprised to hear that. One comment I heard summed up the feeling of many. "I don't mind helping others," one woman said, "but what about us? When are we going to take care of our own?"

I was reminded of that question again this month when the Bush Administration decided to send millions of dollars in unemployment pay to former Iraqi soldiers. Let's put aside the merits of that idea for the moment. What really gets people's blood boiling is that at the same time we're helping unemployed Iraqis, congressional Republicans are refusing to extend unemployment insurance for American workers who have had their jobs shipped overseas.

Every time I think about this inconsistency, I hear that woman's voice: "When are we going to take care of our own?"

What I am hearing from South Dakotans is that what bothers them isn't that President Bush wants to help Iraqis. It's that we're being generous to Iraq while being stingy at home.

Here's what I mean. I supported the president when he requested more than $18 billion to rebuild schools, provide health care, train a new police force, and make other improvements to Iraq's infrastructure. Unfortunately, while Republicans and Democrats worked together to make these investments in Iraq, Washington Republicans have refused to invest in our needs here at home.

Forty-three million Americans don't have health insurance, and millions more have inadequate coverage. Many of these people are just one serious illness away from bankruptcy. They certainly don't agree with Secretary Thompson that they enjoy universal health care.

And a record 354,000 Americans were denied extended unemployment compensation in March because congressional Republicans blocked a vote to extend these benefits. While those jobless Americans surely wouldn't want to trade places with unemployed Iraqi soldiers, I suspect hey think their government should also invest in them, not just in unemployed Iraqis.

In addition, the Bush Administration has proposed the smallest increase in education funding in nine years and nearly a 50 percent cut in first-responder training. They've proposed a 15 percent cut in grants to local police, fire and emergency medical agencies.

And the president is insisting that we don't have the money we need to fund essential road, bridge, and rail improvements across our country. In fact, the president is insisting on a highway bill that would mean about $30 million less in road and bridge projects for South Dakota alone than the bipartisan Senate transportation bill.

Perhaps worst of all, the Administration has shortchanged our troops in Iraq and our veterans at home. The head of the VFW called the president's budget for veterans health care and other programs a "disgrace and a sham." We've imposed enormous demands on our Reservists and National Guard troops, as well as their families, but the Administration continues to object to bipartisan efforts to provide them access to the affordable health care they have earned.

Moreover, because the Defense Department didn't provide enough body armor and armored trucks, soldiers in the field went unprotected, and their families at home had to dig into their own pockets to obtain the protection they needed. That's unconscionable.

We need to complete our mission in Iraq, and we can't neglect our international responsibilities abroad. But those goals should never prevent us from doing right by America.

"When are we going to take care of our own?" is the right question to ask. Now our government has to come up with at least as good an answer.

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