BEAM: Veterans Lose Another Round

The opening of a Veterans Administration health care clinic in Lake Charles is facing another setback. Members of Congress have — once again — given us a perfect example of the devious games Democrats and Republicans play in Washington, D.C., for purely political reasons.

The U.S. Senate Thursday sidetracked a bill that would have expanded health care and provided education and job-training benefits for the nation’s 22 million veterans at a 10-year cost of $21 billion. The measure needed 60 votes to keep it moving through the legislative process, but it came up four short (56-41). U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Dean Heller of Nevada were the only Republicans voting with Democrats.

A Lake Charles clinic is only one of 27 medical facilities that would have been opened in 18 states. Lafayette is also among that number. U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who represents this corner of the state, said the House last year overwhelmingly passed legislation to authorize the new medical clinics.

“… Instead of expediting passage of this bill by unanimous consent, senators locked it in a larger controversial veterans’ bill that cannot pass either chamber. This all-or-nothing approach guarantees that veterans will continue receiving low-quality care in an unaccountable system,” Boustany said.

The entire Louisiana congressional delegation has been fighting for the two Louisiana clinics for a long time. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., expressed the sentiments of delegation members.

“I’m frustrated that bureaucratic red tape and now congressional gridlock is preventing us from providing convenient access to quality health care for Southwest Louisiana veterans,” Landrieu said. “It has taken far too long to green-light these two veterans clinics in Lake Charles and Lafayette, and the ongoing delay is completely unacceptable.”

U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont Independent, is chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and author of the legislation. He said the fight for veterans isn’t over.

“I am proud that we received every Democratic vote and that two Republicans also voted with us,” Sanders said in a statement. “In the coming weeks, I will be working hard to secure three additional Republican votes, and I think we can do that.”

Republicans offered some legitimate reasons for opposing the legislation, but they lost the initial public relations war on this issue. Newspaper headlines and veterans groups were quick to blame the GOP for the defeat. Sanders was especially hard-hitting.

“I personally, I have to say honestly, have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for tax breaks for billionaires, for millionaires, for large corporations and then say we don’t have the resources to protect our veterans,” he said.

Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion, said, “I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote. Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said, “Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans and veterans are caught in the crossfire. Veterans don’t have time for this nonsense and veterans are tired of being used as political chew toys.”

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., spoke for Republicans, saying, “We’re not going to be intimidated on this. We’re going to do the right thing for the veterans of America.”

Republicans said the bill was being paid for with money that would be saved when U.S. troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan, but those aren’t real savings. They added that the additional benefits, some of them questionable, would overwhelm current VA medical facilities that are already flawed, overburdened and years behind in processing claims.

Typical of the questionable benefits provided for in the bill is one of its more than 140 provisions that would give memberships at private health clubs to overweight veterans who live more than 15 minutes away from a VA gym.

Democrats weren’t free of political manipulations. Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., refused to allow votes on a GOP amendment that would have reduced the cost of the bill and added sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program. President Obama doesn’t want the sanctions, but the other part of the amendment might have been accepted by the Senate. There is simply no longer any give-and-take on controversial issues.

This is another example of a congressional system that gives too much power to the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House. They decide which bills get heard and when, and punish members of their party who don’t follow their lead.

The Associated Press reported that Republicans don’t fear any backlash for their votes because the Democratic bill would have hampered veterans’ services and flooded the VA health care system. Many of them also believe other issues like the president’s health care law are what really captures voters’ interest.

Obamacare isn’t popular, no doubt about that. However, Republicans are deceiving themselves if they think those 22 million veterans and their families aren’t going to hold this vote against their party. Yes, the Democrats are just as uncompromising, but they did vote for the Senate veterans bill.

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