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STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY
Interview with Eric Shinseki; Reaction to Interview with Eric Shinseki
Aired March 24, 2013 - 12:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Gun violence strikes close to home.
Today, Colorado's governor mourns the shooting death of a close friend the same day he signs broad gun control legislation, including a ban sales of magazines that carry more than 15 rounds ammunition.
HICKENLOOPER: These high capacity magazines have potential to turn killers into killing machines.
CROWLEY: Gun owners are threatening a recall effort. We will talk with Governor John Hickenlooper.
Plus, called to duty then buried in paperwork. After ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a bureaucratic battle front awaits returning soldiers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No veteran should have to wait for claims.
CROWLEY: And yet, many do wait and wait. Our exclusive interview with Veterans Administration secretary, Eric Shinseki.
Then, the Supreme Court set this week to hear arguments on two cases that could change the way the law treats same-sex marriage. Two key players join us, California attorney general, Kamala Harris, and Prop 8 supporter, Austin Nimocks.
I'm Candy Crowley. And this is STATE OF THE UNION."
CROWLEY (on-camera): The mass shooting at a school in Columbine, Colorado, and a movie theater in Aurora often left the state in the unwelcomed center of the country's long debate about violence. This week, the Colorado governor found himself professionally and personally back in the middle again.
First, he learned that a good friend, Colorado state prison chief, Tom Clements, was gunned down in his own home. It was learned soon thereafter that a person of interest in the Clements murder was an ex-con named Evan Ebel, the long troubled son of another close friend of the governor's. Evan Ebel died in a shootout with Texas authorities following a high speed chase. He is now considered a suspect in the Clements killing. Authorities also suspect Ebel's involvement in the shooting death of a pizza delivery man in Denver. Wednesday, as the tragically coincidental story unfolded, Governor Hickenlooper signed legislation aimed at cutting down on gun violence.
The governor joins me now from Colorado. Governor, thank you so much. A busy and troubling week for you, I know. Let me start with this -- the shooting of your chief prisons official. We are now learning that there may be a link and possibly that this was part of a hit that was ordered by a White supremacist group out of prison that, perhaps, it was retaliation for an effort by prison officials to break up this White supremacist gang. And that, therefore, there may be others on a hit list including yourself. Can you tell me what you know about that part of the investigation?
HICKENLOOPER: Well, the investigation is still ongoing. So, they hate me to talk about it, but we're trying to follow every possible lead. We know that Evan Ebel was connected to the White supremacist group. And so, we're trying to make sure we get all the information we possibly can on why he did what he did. We can't see clearly what a motive was.
CROWLEY: And so, there is the possibility of Evan Ebel's connection and that, perhaps, it was a hit ordered out of prison. Has your security has increased because of concern about that, has it not?
HICKENLOOPER: Well, somewhat. I mean, we've always got security. They've picked it up a bit a little bit, but, you know, I'm not terribly, you know, worried about it. I mean, the whole week was sort of felt like I was in -- I was caught in a nightmare that I couldn't wake up from, right? That all these things kept happening to people that I loved.
And they didn't seem to be connected in any way. To me, the emotional toll has been much deeper than, you know, worrying about security.
CROWLEY: And I am going to assume, of course, that you've spoken to Mr. Clements' family, he being a close friend of yours. Have you also talked to the father of this suspect who, as we said, has been killed? Because I know he was a close friend of yours as well.
HICKENLOOPER: Well, I've known Evan's father for, you know, more than 30 years, when I first came out as a geologist to work in Colorado in 1981. He and I worked at the same company. We've always stayed friends. He's one of the hardest working, most honorable, honest people I've ever known. Just a wonderful person who, I mean, from the beginning his son just seemed to have this bad streak -- this streak of cruelty and anger.
And yet, Jack, I mean, they did everything they could. They tried -- I mean, they worked with Evan again and again, but to no avail. He just had a bad, bad streak.
CROWLEY: Have you spoken with Mr. Ebel?
HICKENLOOPER: Oh, yes. I've talked to him the night when we found out that all the signs seemed to point to Evan. I gave him a call. And he was -- he already knew. And he was just distraught. I mean, he was more upset than I've ever seen him. It's interesting to see that Tom Clements' wife, who is one of the most wonderful people, I mean, they were just a remarkable couple.
And she, of course, spent a couple hours with her on Wednesday deeply distraught. Tom Clements, one of the greatest people I've ever worked with, was kind of the elder statesmen of all our cabinet. But to have two people connected, two people I know so well and love so deeply to be connected by this, just, it's inexplicable.
CROWLEY: It is. I want to move you on to the broader picture of the gun control measures that were in the works prior to obviously this week and the murders et cetera. So, let me ask you about that and ask you to put it in a national perspective. What we have learned about gun control now -- gun control measures now going through Congress is that there is little room for -- or little chance that an assault weapons ban would actually pass.
The administration including Vice President Joe Biden has been out there pushing for a ban on some of these assault weapons. Here's a little bit of what he said in New York City recently.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For all those who say we shouldn't and can't ban assault weapons, for all those who say the politics are too hard, how can they say that and tell me that you can't take off the street these weapons of war?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: Now, governor, the gun legislation that you signed this week in Colorado, a hunting state, has been described as one of the toughest gun laws in the country, and yet, you didn't include semi- assault weapons ban at all. Are the politics just against it or do you think it wouldn't do any good?
HICKENLOOPER: I think we've focused -- you know, after the shootings last summer in the movie theater, we really focused on mental health first then universal background checks. I mean, Colorado is a state that we got some of the best elk hunting, deer hunting, I mean, it's a state where we have a long tradition of a relationship with guns and hunting and that traditional approach from father to child.
So, you know, we tried to look at if we wanted to tighten up a little bit things like universal background checks which clearly make a significant difference, that's where we put our initial focus.
CROWLEY: And do you think that the Congress is wrong not to go after an assault weapons ban or do you think that the politics are there that would quote "sort of protect some of these politicians who feel that the folks are not with them on this?"
HICKENLOOPER: Well, there's just a lot of -- I think the feeling right now around assault weapons at least in Colorado is that they're so hard to define what an assault weapon is. There's a lot of questions whether the tenure ban that was -- federal ban that was in existence made a difference.
And so many -- when I went out and spoke in grand junction yesterday, which is a four-hour drive west of Denver, go over the mountains and out on to the far west part of the state, there are 200 protesters there who were really upset just over, you know, universal background checks and banning the high capacity magazine. So -- CROWLEY: So still --
HICKENLOOPER: Yes. We talk to them.
CROWLEY: Still a tough sell is what you're saying.
HICKENLOOPER: It's a tough sell. They're very worried about government keeping a centralized database which I assured them wasn't going to happen, that this was just the first step in trying to take guns away. I met with the organizers and the leaders of the protest, seven or eight individuals and really tried to hear them. We had, you know, I think a blunt honest dialogue.
But in the end, you know, they asked could they pray for me. And so, they put their hands and we all prayed. I mean, they deeply believe that their guns and the Second Amendment are critical parts of American life. And their integrity and honesty, their conviction, you know, you can't challenge that. And I think, in the end, when they're praying that I'm protected and that my leadership is -- I'm lifted up and supported, you know, I recognize we're not so different, right?
We just got to make sure we get to the same facts and, you know, I try to convince them to recognize that the large magazine capacity -- or the large capacity magazines is an inconvenience, but a lot of people in urban areas think that's, you know, 30 to 40 percent of police officers killed in live duty come from high capacity magazines.
CROWLEY: Governor John Hickenlooper, these debates, I'm sure, will continue to go on, including on Capitol Hill and in your state. Thank you so much for joining us today.
HICKENLOOPER: You bet. My pleasure.
CROWLEY: Politicians always promise the best care to American war vets, but they don't always deliver.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PAUL RIECKHOFF, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA: Every V.A. secretary comes in and says I'm going to break the backlog. And every V.A. secretary leaves and says the next guy's got to break the backlog. It hasn't happened yet.
(END VIDEO CLIP) CROWLEY: V.A. secretary, Eric Shinseki, is here to answer the critics who say he hasn't done enough to eliminate the mounds of paperwork keeping vets from their disability benefits.
CROWLEY: It's a standard piece in every politician's rhetorical repertoire, so fundamental to how America views its obligation, it is often called a sacred promise.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will keep faith with our veterans, investing in world class care including mental health care for our wounded warriors, supporting our military families, giving our veterans the benefits and education and job opportunities that they have earned.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: And still so much of that sacred promise is unfulfilled promise. By the end of this month, more than a million new claims for disability benefits will be pending at the Veterans Administration. Of those, two-thirds have been backlogged for 125 days or more. On average, processing a veteran's claim takes 260 days, some drag out for years.
Veteran groups have been on Capitol Hill demanding action, but lawmakers say the problem lies within the Veterans Administration and its failure to computerize the records.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. TIM WALZ, (D) MINNESOTA: I am still baffled that I can send a package anywhere in the world and get online and track that through UPS and know right where it is and who signed it, and yet, I've got have veterans two years later wondering where in the heck their file is, who saw it, and what's going on with it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: One claims office in North Carolina is so weighted by paperwork the building is in danger of collapsing. When we return, V.A. secretary, Eric Shinseki, in his first Sunday interview.
CROWLEY: There are 21.5 million war veterans currently living in the United States. Chances are good you either know one or are one. Earlier, I spoke with V.A. secretary, Gen. Eric Shinseki.
CROWLEY: Joining me now, General Shinseki, the head of the V.A. in your first Sunday interview. So, we appreciate you're giving it to us on such an incredible issue, frankly.
SHINSEKI: Thank you for having me, Candy. CROWLEY: I want to start talking about the backlog.
CROWLEY: And knowing that in October of 2009, you've been in the V.A. for less than a year, 164,000 in the backlog. And that's defined as cases pending for more than 125 days. It's now 630,000. What is wrong here? SHINSEKI: Well, Candy, first of all, no one should have to wait for their claims to be processed. Let me just make sure that we understand what we're talking about here. For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning today, they have been granted five years of medical care to which they have access at V.A. if they present and they'll be enrolled.
CROWLEY: How long does that take?
SHINSEKI: They present and they have the proper identification and they're immediately enrolled. So, for compensation, which is the disability claims, which is the backlog, that, indeed, has increased. Ten years of war, requirements have gone up, more complex claims because of the seriousness --
CROWLEY: Multiple claims by one person have gone up.
SHINSEKI: That's correct. A complexity issue. But, also, we're a paper process, have been for decades. This has been decades building. And we need to go digital, and we're in the process of doing that. We also compound this backlog when we make decisions as we did in 2010 to grant Agent Orange service connection for Vietnam veterans, Gulf War illness service connection for those who went to desert storm 1.
And then, our increase of claims to combat PTSD for the first time ever, we've said if you've been in combat, you have verifiable PTSD.
CROWLEY: General, I understand the job is complicated and huge and we're coming off two wars, but this administration and you knew that coming in that two wars were going to end. We talked about changing from paper to digital for these claims for the five years you've been head of the V.A., for the five years the president has been there.
The backlog has gotten worse on something that was pretty foreseeable in a lot of ways knowing that these wars were going to end. Is it acceptable to you that 70 percent of your claims have been pending over 125 days?
SHINSEKI: No veteran should have to wait for claims. If there's anybody impatient here, I am that individual. And, we're pushing hard.
CROWLEY: Why is it that the veterans, themselves, get the sense that the V.A. is an impenetrable bureaucracy? Because again, after five years, it seems like that's enough time to streamline this process.
SHINSEKI: Veterans in the last four Years, candy, have joined us in unprecedented numbers. 940,000 more veterans enrolled for benefits than they were four years ago. So, the fact is that veterans are coming to us and they are being enrolled. We produce a million claims decision each year going out the door and have for the last three years.
And so, when we talk about an inventory of claims today of about 875,000 claims of which about 600,000 are backlogged, just the amount of work we put out the door indicates that this is not a static number. There are going to be a few who are complex enough to go longer than we'd like. But there is a lot of work being done.
CROWLEY: Right. I mean, this is more than a few. As you know, there've been a lot of veterans groups coming to Washington this month going this backlog is insane. And it is not fulfilling what this country said how they, you know -- I don't know a politician that doesn't say we have to take care of these men and women when they come home.
And yet --there's the Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans Association and I have started the tumbler feed about stopping the backlog. And I wanted to read you just two quick entries. There are a lot of them. One of them from a marine veteran. "I'm a marine veteran suffering from depression. I've never sought treatment. Why should I? The average wait is 273 days. Stop the V.A. Backlog and you can save my life."
Another vet, "The V.A. expects pending cases to grow and pass one million by the end of March. Mr. President and Congress, what is your plan?"
What do you say to the hundreds and hundreds of veterans going I have been sitting here for 200 and more days and I can't get any help?
SHINSEKI: For, again, let me use the marine veteran that you talked about to be sure we understand what we're addressing here. In health care, mental health, we're open for business. They have five years of V.A. health care granted.
CROWLEY: How long does that take?
SHINSEKI: They present themselves at one of our facilities with proper identification and they're enrolled and begin treatment.
CROWLEY: That day?
SHINSEKI: They begin that day. If it's an emergent condition within 24 hours, they will be seen. If it's an initial appointment where we, at times, scheduled up, within two weeks they will be seen.
CROWLEY: What do you need, Mr. Secretary? I also don't know a veteran that doesn't speak so highly of you and your service. So, this is not a lack of caring, but this is a lack of something. A lot of people look at it. Does the president need to get involved here? We have a situation where the defense department, the VA, on different systems. So, it takes a while once you get out of the service to then go through the V.A. What can the president do? What do you need in order to make this happen more quickly?
SHINSEKI: Well, the president's been very clear veterans are a top priority with him. And ending the backlog is foremost in his mind. He has made that very clear.
CROWLEY: But is there something he can do for you? Does it need more people? Do you need more processors? Do you need more accountability for the processors? What do you need?
SHINSEKI: In the past four years, if you look at our budget for V.A., a 40 percent increase our budgets at a time when other departments have gone through belt tightening. Someone once told me that show me your budget and I'll show you what you value. I think very clearly from this president the growth in our budgets reflect where he places his value.
CROWLEY: Let me -- I want to point out to you something that Congressman Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, said talking about the backlog.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JEFF MILLER, (R) CHAIRMAN, VETERAN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Without better workload or surge capacity planning, I am fearful that V.A. is simply one national mission away from complete collapse and utter failure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: And, again, I think it sounds like the president's heart's in the right place, your heart's in the right place, but something here is not working. And if a country promises people go fight for us and we'll fight for you.
CROWLEY: We see the increase suicide rates, we see these enormous backlogs that get worse instead of better, and yet, you have an increased budget. So, I'm just trying to figure out why this isn't working.
SHINSEKI: Well, we have put in place a robust plan to end the backlog in 2015. That's been our commitment. And we have today an automation tool that we didn't have two years ago. And, it is called the Veterans Benefits Management System. It has already been fielded to 20 of our regional offices.
We will be in all 56 regional offices by the end of this year. And this automation process is going to give us a production, you know, a ramp that we've not been able to produce to this point.
CROWLEY: And we're still not, you know, we're looking at 2015 is your goal. That's a long time for a vet. SHINSEKI: Well, we've put three million claims out the door. If you have an inventory of about 875,000, a million claims decisions going out a year, you know we're taking care of business. There are going to be a few that are complex enough to run longer than we would like.
CROWLEY: But it's not a few, is it? There's so many backlogged, so many that have been waiting. The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained documents saying that in cities like New York, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, the average processing days for first-time filers is 600 days. So, that's not a few cases either.
SHINSEKI: Well, we can go and take, you know, take those numbers and drill down into them, but again, our commitment is we're going to end the backlog in 2015. This has been decades in the making, ten years of war. We're in paper. We need to get out of paper. We still get paper from DOD and other agencies.
We have commitments that in 2014, we will be electronically processing our data and sharing it.
CROWLEY: I want to ask you one question about jobs, and that is, as you know, the veterans jobless rate is higher than the average population. Have you done enough to help those veterans? And what do you think the problem is?
SHINSEKI: Well, we all look for the opportunity to increase veteran employment. I think the latest employment numbers do reflect some impact.
CROWLEY: About 9.4 now.
SHINSEKI: That's correct. And the president has been forward and leading on this. I think you're familiar with the joining forces initiative out of the White House led by the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden that promised by the end of 2013, a 100,000 new jobs for military spouses and veterans, they passed that in 2012.
And I think we're up in the neighborhood of 175,000 and continuing to grow. We hire veterans inside the federal government. One-third of my agency are veterans. And we're looking to push that to 40 percent. But this is an area --
CROWLEY: There's many more outside obviously that need help. I want to ask you a final question. By playing back something you said in 2008 when you were nominated.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHINSEKI: They deserve a smooth, error-free, no-fail, benefits assured transition into our ranks as veterans, and that is our responsibility. Not theirs.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: Have you lived up to that responsibility?
SHINSEKI: The commitment hasn't changed, Candy. I took this job to make things better for veterans. I don't know them individually, but I know them as a group. I've served with many of them. And the commitment hasn't changed. And we're going to fix this.
CROWLEY: And, again, for you and for the president it's not a question of commitment. It's a question of results. And the question is have there been enough results over a five-year period to satisfy you?
SHINSEKI: No veteran should have to wait for claims as they are today. We have a fix for this. We're open for business. And we will end the backlog in 2015.
CROWLEY: General Shinseki, we appreciate you coming by. We hope you will come by more often as such an important issue I think for the whole country not just the veterans seeking their benefits. Thank you.
SHINSEKI: Thank you, Candy.
CROWLEY: A point of clarification on the unemployment rate, it is 9.4 percent among post September 11 veterans. The overall veteran unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, that is lower than the national rate.
Next up, leaders from two veterans' groups join us with their reaction to General Eric Shinseki.
CROWLEY: Some reaction now to what we just heard from General Eric Shinseki. I am joined by Tom Tarantino from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Peter Gaytan from the American Legion.
Thank you both for being here. You just listened to General Shinseki. Just your response in general?
GAYTAN: Well, first of all, we appreciate you bringing attention to this issue. And this V.A. backlog problem is not a new problem. It's a problem the American Legion has been dealing with for decades. And we've been dealing with it because we have service officers with a vested interest in the success of the disability claims process.
We have service officers in every V.A. regional office in the nation. And we are understanding -- we are seeing the problems firsthand. It's not a report from Washington; it's not an opportunity for the secretary to testify where we realize the problem exists. We live and breathe the claims process every day because the American Legion helps veterans develop their claims and submit them to the V.A.
So we have known this problem for decades and we are here to help the secretary and the president understand the problem and solve the problem so those men and women who are turning to the V.A. and turning to the American Legion know that we can help them get the benefits that they've earned through their service to this country. TARANTINO: You know, it's the same thing that we have been hearing, Candy, for, at least me personally, for five years. it's the same thing that we've been hearing for decades. You know, if you read the transcript of the general's interview, it's virtually the same thing he said in 2009, and then in testimony in 2010, '11 and '12.
What's clear to me is that, although there are legions of people at the VFW or at the Legion, at IAVA, who are willing to help the V.A., I don't think they have a handle on this problem. And the numbers clearly show that, with 600,000 in the backlog.
CROWLEY: And so if this has been going on for decades, and we know that it has, and it's gotten progressively worse in the last five years, and -- and something, again, that was foreseeable, at least at some level, that you were going to get this influx of veterans applying for benefits, do you -- it seems to me that you can't just blame the current V.A. It's all the past V.A.s as well.
Is this a system that just needs to be blown up from the inside and start again?
GAYTAN: It's a system that needs to be addressed from the core of the issue. And that goes back to the regional offices. And when you mentioned this is a problem that has existed -- and I've said it -- and it has existed, but this is an opportunity for the secretary and this administration to take hold of this issue and solve it.
And you do that by identifying the realities of the problem. The realities of the problem aren't understood here in Washington. They're understood when you go to the regional offices and you sit across the desk from a veteran who's waiting for their claim to be developed, who's relying on V.A. to process their claim.
We need to understand where the disconnect is within the regional offices in every state where that veteran goes to develop their claim. Once that's solved, we can start working on decreasing that backlog.
TARANTINO: And this is since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is now the third V.A. secretary to try to deal with this problem. And they really didn't start tackling it in earnest until 2009.
But let's just pull that back. Let's pull it out of Washington and talk about what the average vet is looking at. If I'm a post-9/11 veteran and I see that I'm probably going to wait, on a national average, over 300 days -- if I'm in a major city, we're looking at 600 days. What impetus do I have to try to seek the care and benefits from V.A. that I need?
CROWLEY: This backlog doesn't even include people that have decided, never mind, this system is too messed up for me to even bother, and they, kind of, fade into the general population, even if they might need help.
What is your-all's perception of the base problem? Is it just that there is this wild disconnect between what Washington wants and what they're getting in these regional offices?
GAYTAN: It -- it's more than one problem. The V.A. backlog -- we perceive it as one big problem. It is a problem, but it's a problem with various solutions. We need to go out and understand what those problems are and what they are -- where they exist and then work on individual processes to improve them.
What the American Legion has done is gone out and looked at the FDC process, V.A.'s Fully Developed Claim process. Veterans have success stories on their claims being adjudicated in six months because they used the process called Fully Developed Claims.
What we're seeing when we go out to the regional offices -- the American Legion has staff there and we want to see how they're relating with the V.A. staff in the regional offices. And we're seeing the successes in those regional offices where our personnel communicate directly with the V.A. personnel so a veteran's Fully Developed Claim can move smoothly through the process.
TARANTINO: And Peter's right. There are a lot of really good tools that the V.A. is developing to help fix this, but they're just tools and they're pilots. There is no magic bullet. There is not going to be a magic law that solves this. What we have been advocating is that we need the president of the United States to establish a presidential commission. Because, really, this isn't about V.A. This has to do with DOD not having their medical records electronically.
CROWLEY: Right, and they just gave up on a plan that the DOD would have a streamlined way to get its records to the V.A. They gave up on that.
TARANTINO: Right. And you're never going to get a fully electronics claims process when 60 percent of DOD records are on paper. So we're asking the American people to tell the president, "You need to step in and take leadership." You can go to IAVA.org and sign our petition.
CROWLEY: He hasn't -- you know, you're right. It does seem that the president could say, "Look, DOD and V.A., get this together here. I promised, like so many politicians, that we would help take care of this."
But -- but when I asked General Shinseki if needed more help from the president; did he need the president to step in; what was the problem, he said, oh, no, our -- you know, the president's fully committed. So...
GAYTAN: What the president can do is make sure that DOD and V.A. are communicating. The secretary mentioned VBMS, Veterans Benefits Management System, the electronic -- the perceived electronic process that's going to exist five years down the road for veterans to develop their claim. The success of that electronic process of V.A. disability claims is fully dependent on the communication level from DOD to V.A. in terms of electronic medical records.
And when V.A. and DOD announced recently that they were going to abandon that plan because they have a new plan, we need to be reassured -- the veterans community needs to be reassured that that new plan for integration between the medical records of DOD and V.A. actually are successful enough so that we can say that VBMS is going to improve the backlog.
CROWLEY: Because the lack of that coordination adds, you know, a year and a half or so to the whole process, from getting out -- from the time you get out to the time you get benefits.
TARANTINO: At least. But it's also a lack of implementation. The V.A. needs to start pulling the trigger on some of the -- on the ideas that they've been working on for the five years. VBMS is now going to roll out at the end of this year. Two months ago it was rolling out in the spring. Six months before that it was rolling out around the middle of last year.
You know, we're -- the veterans community, we keep hearing the V.A. say, "Oh, we're working on it. We're on track. We're on track." And so we wait for them to get it together. And we're starting to feel like Charlie Brown with the football. And at this point, my members are fed up. Veterans across the country are fed up waiting 300, 400, 500, 600 days for the benefits and care that they've earned, and we're tired of waiting for the V.A. to get their act together.
So what we need is the president to step in and lead and fix this problem, bring the brightest minds from around the country, from the insurance industry, from the defense, veterans community, from private industry, to actually identify the problems that the V.A. frankly can't seem to identify themselves.
CROWLEY: Let me -- we've got less than a minute left, so I want to ask you each this question, starting with you, Peter. You heard the secretary talk about this robust plan that will have this backlog taken care of by 2015, even though it's uncertain what the plan is. You've heard him say that everybody will be -- this will all be digitalized, at least as far as the V.A. is concerned, by the end of the year. Do you believe him?
GAYTAN: We have hope because the communication level from the secretary has been outstanding with the American Legion. We have an opportunity to meet with the secretary once a month. But we need the secretary to take advantage of listening to the stakeholders. It's one thing to have a commission with outside advisers, but you need to listen to your stakeholders. You need to listen to the organization who have done this for years.
TARANTINO: I just -- I just don't see how. The V.A. -- Secretary Shinseki hasn't met with IAVA for over 2,000 days. We have no visibility. And what's worse, it's not about us; it's about the veterans who are out in America who are seeing the problem get worse and have no visibility on when it's going to get better.
CROWLEY: Tom Tarantino, Peter Gaytan, thank you for coming in and talking about this issue. We want you back again.
GAYTAN: Thank you very much. TARANTINO: Thank you.
CROWLEY: Thank you.
When we return, the Supreme Court takes up same-sex marriage.
CROWLEY: It's a 14-word law that has sparked reams of lawsuits, legal filings and now a date with the Supreme Court. California's Proposition 8 reads "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." There are many ways the high court could rule on this one, but whatever the decision expected this summer, the impact could reach far beyond California state lines.
Supporters of gay marriage are hoping Prop 8's ban on gay marriage will be overturned as unconstitutional. If the justices rule that there is a fundamental right to marriage, all state bans on same- sex marriage would be overturned.
In their arguments this week, opponents will push for a narrower ruling restricting the impact to just California and leaving individual states to decide for themselves. All eyes will be on Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered to be the swing vote among the nine justices. Of the two Supreme Court cases advancing gay rights, Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for both.
Next up, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Austin Nimocks, a member of the team defending Prop 8's ban on same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court.
CROWLEY: People are already lining up at the Supreme Court in an effort to get seats for Tuesday's historic arguments on same-sex marriage. Joining me, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Austin Nimocks of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit Christian advocacy group.
Thank you both for being here to try to, kind of, make sense of the possibilities in front of the Supreme Court. And we know that people are making arguments at many different levels, both for and against Proposition 8, which was California's voter ban on same-sex marriage. But I want to, kind of, bring it down to what may be at least the most far-reaching issues.
And the first is to you. This particular argument for those who want to overturn Prop 8 is that this is like Civil Rights, that this is the Civil Rights movement moved to the gay and lesbian community. Why is that not the case?
NIMOCKS: Well, we understand historically that keeping the races apart is wrong. What marriage is about is bringing together the two opposite halves of humanity for a deep social good. And that's why, as President Obama himself said, there are people of good will on both sides of this issue. And what we need the Supreme Court to do is not try to short-circuit this debate. We need to keep the debate alive.
Americans on both sides of this issue are deeply invested in this debate on marriage. We don't need a 50-state solution presented by the Supreme Court when our democratic institutions are perfectly capable of handling this issue.
And that's really what the court is going to decide, whether it's going to impose a redefinition of marriage among all Americans or whether we're going to be allowed to continue to work on this together, state by state.
CROWLEY: So not a Roe v. Wade decision is essentially what's being argued; don't make a federal decision that then sets the stage so that -- you know, arguing for years to come?
HARRIS: Look, Candy, this case -- the case before the United States Supreme Court, both in terms of Proposition 8 and DOMA, really is about a fundamental right.
CROWLEY: And DOMA -- let me just -- is the Defense of Marriage Act, which is the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and woman.
HARRIS: Correct. And the United States Supreme Court, since the 1880s, has 14 times described marriage as a fundamental right. So when we're talking about this issue going before the court, we are talking about fundamental notions of freedom, of justice and liberty.
CROWLEY: And as fundamental right, just, is that -- that means you think, within the Constitution, there is a fundamental right for anyone to marry, regardless of gender?
HARRIS: When we talk about fundamental rights as it relates to the Constitution, we are talking about those rights that we as a nation designated as being some of the most sacred of all the rights we can have. And 14 times the United States Supreme Court has described marriage as a fundamental right.
CROWLEY: So what do you -- what's reasonable to expect when you look at the number of things that are being argued by very -- amicus briefs on sides, I mean, people to come in and say, "And here's another reason either to uphold Prop 8" or to say that it's unconstitutional?
Where's the realm of possibility, do you think, in what might ultimately be decided by this summer?
NIMOCKS: Well, I think the court's going to be hopefully concerned with its role in this process.
You know, we have a massive political debate in this country going on right now about same-sex marriage. And there are people on both sides of this issue.
The constitutional question presented to the court is dramatically different, and that's whether the court needs to intervene and impose a 50-state solution upon everybody. And fundamental rights are those that are deeply rooted in our nation's history and tradition. Same-sex marriage is not deeply rooted in our nation's history and traditions. And so the Supreme Court...
CROWLEY: I would assume that you would argue that equality is and this is a matter of equality?
HARRIS: This is a matter of equal protection under the law. And as it relates to a fundamental right, the court will hold that under the highest level of scrutiny. And in this case, what we are arguing and what I think most people believe -- and I know that the majority of Americans believe it; the majority of Californians believe it; the majority of Catholics in this country believe it -- which is that same-sex couples should be afforded equal status under the law as those that are not.
CROWLEY: And let me ask -- I want to show our audience some of those polls. This happens to be a CNN/ORC poll. And from 2008 to 2011 the polling on this has completely turned around. So now 53 percent of Americans say, yes, same-sex marriages should be recognized as valid; 44 percent say no.
So with -- with the country going that way, is that something that folks should take into consideration?
CROWLEY: ... particularly the Supreme Court?
NIMOCKS: I think it's worthy of consideration as far as the political debate is concerned, but we all understand, especially General Harris, that the only polls that matter are the ones that happen on Election Day.
And so when we're talking about Proposition 8, we're talking about Californians going to the ballot box twice in a nine-year period and voting to uphold marriage between one man and one woman. And that's our most fundamental right in this country is the right to vote and the right to participate in the political process.
And we don't need the Supreme Court to take that right away from Americans of good faith on both sides of this issue and impose its judicial solution. We need to leave this debate to the democratic process, which is working.
CROWLEY: And I want to bring you in on this because, in case folks are confused why the state attorney general in California -- you don't want to uphold Proposition 8, which is Californians voting twice, as you mentioned, to ban same-sex marriage. And you would not defend that in court. In fact, you're against it.
HARRIS: I am absolutely against a ban on same-sex marriages because...
CROWLEY: Even if your voters... HARRIS: ... because they are simply unconstitutional. And it is one thing to read the polls, which we have discussed, which show, again, that a majority of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage. But it is more important to read the Constitution.
And the Constitution of the United States dictates, I believe, under every court precedent that we have discussed, in terms of describing marriage as a fundamental right, that the same-sex couples that are before the United States Supreme Court, Mrs. Windsor, Miss Perry, be allowed to have equal protection under the laws, as any Americans, when it comes to their ability to join themselves with their loving partners in marriage and raise their children. And 61 percent of Californians are in favor of same-sex marriage.
CROWLEY: And yet the last time they voted, they voted against it. So it gets, kind of, complicated here. Because you have, you know, voters saying we don't want that because of the way California actually sets things up generally, and it's, sort of, puzzling.
HARRIS: Well, 61 percent of Californians are in favor of same- sex marriage. And I believe, again, because it gets back down to a very simple notion of fundamental rights, fundamental concepts of justice, fundamental concepts of liberty.
And I will tell you, Candy, we have 50,000 children in California right now who are asking, "Why can't my parents be married, too?"
CROWLEY: Let me let you get the last word in here about this. Where do you see this debate going?
NIMOCKS: Well, I see the debate continuing well beyond this Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court is no more going to decide the question of marriage than it decided the question of abortion. Americans are going to continue to debate this important issue. And that's why we need to leave it to our democratic institutions.
If 61 percent of Californians want same-sex marriage, they have the right and should have the right to use their democratic institutions, their legislature and the ballot box to achieve that political result. We don't need the Supreme Court dictating that to all 50 states. And that's what's at stake in this case. And I think most fair-minded Americans agree with that proposition.
CROWLEY: My thanks to Kamala Harris and Austin Nimocks. And my thanks to you as well for watching "State of the Union." Head to cnn.com/sotu for our popular online segment called "Getting to Know." This week, it's know more about California A.G. Kamala Harris. And if you missed any part of today's show, you can buy it on iTunes. "Fareed Zakaria: GPS" is next.