Vet Groups: Partisan Politics Killed Vets Bill

Leaders from veterans organizations that advocated for the veterans benefits legislation that failed to pass the Senate on Thursday blamed partisan bickering for the bill's defeat.

"Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans. And veterans are caught in the crossfire. Veterans don't have time for this nonsense," Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said in statement shortly after the bill failed to pass.

Louis Celli, legislative director for The American Legion, said he was "extremely disappointed" that lawmakers couldn't come together to pass a bill that has broad political support. If senators wanted to pass good bipartisan legislation, he said, the bill extending healthcare to more veterans and providing advance funding to all Department of Veterans Affairs operations was "low-hanging fruit."

Though Republicans who argued against passage said the bill's estimated $21 billion price tag was not affordable, or claimed expanding health care to vets who are not disabled would further burden an already overstressed VA system, veterans' advocates believe it was politics in the end.

"I don't think the size or the cost [of the bill] was the underlying reason it failed. We believe it was the brinksmanship that got us to this point," Celli said.

Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., had invoked the so-called "nuclear" option that prevented any filibuster of legislation. Republicans responded by "fighting back for respect in the chamber."

"It's a battle that veterans got caught between as we tried to pass legislation for our community," Celli said.

"It's sad to see it go down in defeat," said Joe Violante, national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans. "Congress needs to step up to the plate and realize these programs are needed by the men and women who served this country or in some cases by their survivors."

Violante said he was particularly irked that some lawmakers' moved to insert Iran sanctions language into the bill.

"You don't mind them debating the merits of the legislation ... but when they start taking it off track, it really gets frustrating," he said.

For now, he said, all there is to do is get back to work trying to get new legislation before Congress. The DAV met with lawmakers earlier this week to set out its priorities for the coming year, and other veterans groups will be doing the same next week.

Rieckhoff said the IAVA will be "storming the Hill ... to demand Congress stop the [partisan] attacks and put veterans ahead of petty politics."

Celli said the Legion will be doing the same, perhaps looking at getting key portions of the just-defeated bill re-introduced sometime within the next two months.

Some of these critical measures are advance funding for all VA programs, including disability compensation, authorization to sign leases with 27 clinics and hospitals across the country to provide veterans with services, and a guarantees that vets going to school on the Post 9/11 GI Bill pay in-state tuition regardless of where they enroll.

While the comprehensive legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had the support of the majority of the country's veterans groups and military associations, it was opposed by the group American Veterans, or AMVETS.

Stewart Hickey, national executive director for AMVETS, agreed last month that the Sanders' bill addressed many critical issues and offered some important recommendations, but said the group was not supporting it.

Hickey said the Sanders' legislation was a "kitchen sink-like bill" that endeavored to be all things to all veterans, but that it was "just too 'pie in the sky' " for everything it offered.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.Jordan@monster.com.

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