Democrats court veterans by backing concurrent receipt, other issues
By Tom Philpott
Democrats are love-bombing America's 26.5 million military veterans.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the party's leading presidential candidate, begins his victory speeches on primary nights by thanking veterans.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the Democratic response to President Bush's State of the Union Address in January, pledged that her party would "leave no veteran behind."
Pelosi and Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Committee, hosted an unusual meeting Feb. 26 with leaders of dozens of veteran service organizations to review legislative goals.
For Democrats, such goals include immediate concurrent receipt of retired pay and disability compensation for all disabled retirees; an end to the two-tier military survivor benefit plan; a $1,000 bonus to members who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan and $10 billion more for VA healthcare.
Do Democrats truly expect this election year to see a major shift of veterans away from their conservative Republican base?
"We certainly do, and with good reason," Pelosi said. "Republicans have not been friends to the veterans. For all their talk about national security, they ignore the needs of veterans."
Democrats plan to pay for their Salute to Veterans package by repealing the president's "reckless tax cuts" for the wealthy, Pelosi said. "It's a question of priorities."
Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, said that fueling the Democratic courtship of veterans is a sense of real disappointment with the Bush administration.
"Put it in context," Strobridge said. "There was a great deal of dissatisfaction among veterans with the Clinton administration. During the election, Bush used the term, 'Help is on the way,' and it raised expectations a lot."
Rather than support long-ignored veteran issues, he said, the administration opposed them: bills to lift the ban on concurrent receipt, to improve Guard and reserve healthcare coverage, to end the drop in survivor benefits at age 62 and to raise force levels to ease the strain on forces. Even now it studies ways to trim taxpayer support for commissaries.
Pelosi criticized administration proposals to require a $250 healthcare user fee from veterans in priority categories 7 and 8, those with no service-connected disabilities and incomes above federal poverty thresholds. Their co-payments on VA-filled prescription drugs also would rise, from $7 to $15.
By the VA's own estimates, Pelosi said, these fees "will drive 200,000 veterans out of the system and discourage another million from enrolling."
Representatives for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said their bosses were unavailable to respond to Pelosi's remarks.
But a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs, who asked not to be named, said Democratic criticism of administration support for veterans amounts to "playing games with numbers and words."
VA healthcare is treating a million more patients than in 2001, the official said. The proposed $68 billion VA budget for 2005 is 40 percent higher than when Bush took office. User fees and drug co-payments are appropriate for lower-priority veterans, who six years ago were not even entitled to VA care.
Veteran advocates acknowledge that the Department of Veterans Affairs, led by Anthony Principi, has reduced an enormous backlog of claims and improved access to care for the seriously disabled, the indigent and those with service-connected ailments.
The administration also backed annual pay raises and housing allowance hikes that helped close a gap in purchasing power for service members.
White House opposition to other popular initiatives, like concurrent receipt, is what Democrats hope veterans remember.
For decades, regardless of party, the Department of Defense opposed concurrent receipt. The Bush administration thus was caught flat-footed last year when House Democrats used a discharge petition to try to force a vote on a concurrent receipt bill. The White House still opposed the bill, but so many Republicans had co-sponsored it that they risked losing credibility with veterans if they didn't sign the petition. This led to a landmark compromise.
Republicans note that no progress was made on concurrent receipt when Democrats controlled the White House or Congress. Pelosi shrugs it off.
"I'm a new leader. We're not answering for anyone who went before us," she said. "I do know that if we did not make the issue too hot for them to handle, they would have done nothing on concurrent receipt."
Democrats are promising a lot more, and veterans groups are delighted.
"This is the first time in recent memory that anybody has made veterans a campaign issue, or even mentioned them, other than to say, 'Yes, of course, we support our veterans and a strong national defense,' " said David Autry, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans.
DAV likes Kerry's call for mandatory full financing of VA healthcare, "something we've been trying to get Congress to do for several years."
Democrats, he said, "have picked up on the fact that the Republicans have, if not actively acted against veterans, tried to ignore them and, in some minds, have taken the veterans votes for granted."
Veteran issues used to be non-partisan, said the senior VA official.
"Now they're being dragged into the political arena(and) used for partisan advantage."