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CongressNow: Democrats Put Advocates for Veterans in Spotlight

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) caught many by surprise when she suggested her choice for vice president would be Texas Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards. While Pelosi’s pick was seen by some as a jab at President Bush, whose Crawford ranch falls into Edwards’ district, her choice also reveals the growing importance Democrats are placing on veterans’ issues.

“For years, our colleagues have said to [Edwards], why don’t you run for president?” Pelosi told ABC’s “This Week” earlier this summer. “He is an extraordinarily talented person. He is a champion for veterans in the Congress. Under his leadership, we have passed the biggest increase in funding for veterans’ health benefits and other benefits in the history of our country.”

Edwards, a nine-term moderate Democrat from central Texas, is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies. From that perch, Edwards has led Democratic efforts since 2007 to boost spending for veterans’ benefits.

“For a decade, veterans were on a budget treadmill trying to keep up with inflation [while] losing with health care and other benefits,” Edwards said. “Pelosi made a commitment that the VA … would make it a highest of priority in the Congress.”

That commitment, Edwards said, prompted the Speaker to recommend that he become Obama’s running mate.

Democrats increasingly want to move veterans’ issues to the top of the Congressional agenda with a goal of showing their support for the military — even as they oppose the Iraq War. Despite initial opposition from the White House and some in the GOP, Democrats passed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (Va.), this year to bolster veterans’ educational benefits.

“We’re doing these things because it is the right thing to do,” Edwards said.

Webb, a freshman Senator who was mentioned as vice presidential candidate before taking himself out of the running, has also emerged as the party’s point man on veterans’ issues. Webb, a former Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, sponsored the legislation — dubbed the new GI bill — and has been a lead critic of the Iraq War.

Moreover, the House already has approved $47.7 billion in spending for the Veterans Affairs Department in fiscal 2009. The spending is $2.9 billion more than the amount sought by President Bush and $4.6 billion more than Congress approved for veterans in fiscal 2008.

Democrats have repeatedly chided the Bush administration for not spending enough money on veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the bulk of the proposed House increase, about $1.6 billion, would improve health care facilities and treatment by increasing spending for prosthetics, caseworkers and medical research for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he would push for more VA funding, particularly services for troops who lost limbs or suffered brain damage in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I would say if we could get an additional $1 billion, that the VA would be in good shape,” Akaka said. The Senate has yet to approve a fiscal 2009 VA spending bill.

Akaka said Democrats believe that additional spending for veterans should be considered a “cost of the war.” He said additional spending could come in annual spending bills or could be tacked onto emergency war spending measures.

While Republicans have generally backed increased VA spending, some GOPers suggest that Democrats’ support is aimed at making partisan gains.

“Since Democrats have taken over, they have tried to convince people that although they are against the war, they support the troops” by increasing VA spending, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said.

“Republicans and Democrats have been trying to out do each other on VA benefits, but in the end it has been good for vets,” said Wamp, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies.

Wamp said there would be a narrow window after the new administration takes over for lawmakers to settle on a permanent annual increase for VA. He suggested Congress should consider increasing mandatory spending on VA health care services by 1 percent to 2 percent annually.

Not all lawmakers are thrilled with the notion of increased VA spending.

Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the top Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told CongressNow that he believes lawmakers are properly funding VA right now and the additional $1 billion figure was “pulled out of the sky.”

Instead, Burr said lawmakers should focus on boosting spending on private sector health care services for veterans.

During a breakfast with reporters last week, Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake said the department’s current health care funding levels are about right. Peake said he supports “partnering” with private health care providers in a “more business-like manner.” However, he does not believe that will lead to privatization of all VA health care.

Dennis Cullinan, the national legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said such a move would direct VA participants and dollars to the private sector.

“There is no way that the private sector could provide the same quality of care at the same cost,” Cullinan said, clarifying that veterans living in remote areas could benefit from limited privatization as long as dollars are not directed away from the VA’s infrastructure.

However, Cullinan said his chief concern is that Congress won’t send the president the fiscal 2009 military construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill before lawmakers break for the year in early October.

“Right now the concern is just getting the money,” Cullinan said. “As the casualties rise, people will need the care, some for the rest of their lives.”

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