Saturday, March 1, 2014

Don't Let Senate Republicans "Torpedo" Historic Veterans Bill


Senate Minority Leader Mitch "The Turtle" McConnell (R-KY)
If you've read this news blog for any stretch of time, you know that I'm neither a knee-jerk liberal nor a reactionary conservative. While I lean left on most social issues, I'm demonstrably more conservative than many of my lefty pals. On the other hand, I'm certainly more liberal than my right-wing buddies. And I feel compelled to say that what is happening in Congress right now with regard to an historic bill for America's veterans is despicable. And yes, I'm looking at you, Senate Republicans.

As many of you know, there is a comprehensive, bipartisan veterans bill now before the Senate. The bill, S. 1982, would if passed expand healthcare, education opportunities, employment and other benefits for our former warriors. It would specifically allow more veterans to receive treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, improve care and services for veterans who were victims of military sexual assault, advance the use of alternative medical therapies and treatments, guarantee that veterans going to school on the GI Bill pay in-state tuition, and expand dental care. 

But GOP senators, who are typically sane and less inclined to do something this crazy than their reliably do-nothing counterparts in the House, are demanding a vote on an amendment that would reduce the costs of the $21 billion legislation and add language to the bill imposing new sanctions on Iran if the current political efforts to curb that country's nuclear program don't succeed. 

In other words, these lawmakers, led by Senate Minority Leader and world-class obstructionist Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), are holding this bill and America's veterans hostage over an entirely separate issue. And if these children don't get their way, the bill will likely die. This is beyond shameful. And I think it's gonna backfire. It's never a good idea for legislators to use veterans as pawns in a political chess game. Cynical, exploitative political tactics involving our war heroes just don't sit well with Americans of any and all political stripes.

Even the usually staid American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization with some 2.4 million members, is getting uncharacteristically feisty about this untenable move by the GOP. Commander Daniel M. Dellinger of the Legion rightly said this week that Iran sanctions language should simply not be part of this legislation. 

“Iran is a serious issue that Congress needs to address, but it cannot be tied to this bill, which is extremely important as our nation prepares to welcome millions of U.S. military servicemen and women home from war,” Dellinger said. “We can deal with Iran – or any other issue unrelated specifically to veterans – with separate legislation.”

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff also weighed in, saying today, "This bill is a game changer that will change the trajectory for millions of veterans for decades to come. In 2013, veterans were not immune from gridlock in Washington. This year has to be different. We urge the Senate to pass this legislation.”

 If Senate Majority Leader Harry (D-NV) denies Republicans a vote on these amendments, GOP senators reportedly will resort to procedural moves to block the measure from reaching final passage. The thing is, they don't really even like this bill. Several have already said it's too expensive and goes too far and opens up VA facilities to too many veterans, even those who are not there for service-related injuries. God forbid we take care of a war vet who has the flu!

In a characteristically impassioned Senate floor speech, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC) Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), who introduced the legislation, welcomed the strong statements this week from the leading veterans groups and urged Senate Republicans to come to their senses.

“Please do not inject the Iran sanctions issue into a debate on how we can improve the lives of veterans and their families," said Sanders, who in an interview on CNN said the Iran amendment is an attempt “to torpedo this very important piece of legislation.”

That's exactly what it is. But McConnell doesn't want to hear it. He told AP today that attaching the Iran sanctions to the veterans bill is a good idea because it would enhance the prospects for sanctions. He said there is "no excuse for muzzling the Congress on an issue of this importance to our own national security" and the security of other countries.

I hope every veteran and, well, every person living in Kentucky takes heed of what McConnell is doing this week and remembers it come November. National security is of course a hugely important issue, and the debate over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program is obviously a worthy one. But I'm sorry, Mitch, you are not allowed to have this debate at the expense of veterans. If there is any justice you will be voted out of office this year.

I ask that you please call your senators this week, folks, be they Republican, Democrat or Independent, and tell them in no uncertain terms that what these Republican senators are doing with this bill is just flat-out wrong. And tell 'em I sent you. Then you're sure to tick them off.

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