Democrats now pressing for veteran votes

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Democrats are love-bombing America’s 26.5 million military veterans.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party’s leading presidential candidate, begins his victory speeches on primary nights by thanking veterans.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, in the Democratic response to President Bush’s State of the Union Address in January, pledged her party would “leave no veteran behind.”
Pelosi and Rep. Lane Evans, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Committee, hosted an unusual meeting last week with leaders of dozens of veteran service organizations to review legislative goals.
For Democrats, they 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 fueling the Democratic courtship of veterans is a sense of real disappointment with the Bush administration.
“Put it in context,” he said. “There was a great deal of dissatisfaction among veterans with the Clinton administration. During the election, (then-candidate) Bush used the term, ‘Help is on the way,’ and it raised expectations a lot.”
Rather than support long-ignored veteran issues, Strobridge 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 current 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 VA’s own estimates, Pelosi said, these fees “will drive 200,000 veterans out of the system and discourage another million from enrolling.”
Spokespersons for Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (Illinois), Majority Leader Tom Delay (Texas) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (California), 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 2001, he 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.
For current forces, the administration also backed annual pay raises and housing allowance hikes that helped close a gap in purchasing power.
White House opposition to other popular initiatives, like concurrent receipt, is what Democrats hope veterans remember.
Said a veterans’ advocate: “God bless the two-party system.”

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: