A new focus on veterans' benefits

Congress, keen to show support for troops, moves to cut waits at VA hospitals and ease a century-old tax penalty.

With the Iraq occupation highlighting the devotion of US troops - and the dangers they face - America's war veterans are receiving new attention back home.

From reducing long waits at VA hospitals to easing a century-old tax penalty on the disabled, Congress is moving to address some of the key grievances in the veterans' community.

Often, members of Congress consider such issues but fail to act amid a sea of other competing priorities.

But, despite the prospect of fast-rising budget deficits, the legislative climate has changed in recent months. Amid the realities of a long-term engagement in Iraq - and daily reports of the sacrifices of US military, National Guard, and reservists - lawmakers want to make a case to the American public that veterans and their families are being treated fairly.

"As 11/11 approaches, members are unusually alert to the needs of veterans, but this is particularly true in the aftermath of a war," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.

For Democrats, who are the impetus behind many of these changes, it's also a chance to expand the range of government benefits and define a niche for their party in national defense - an area all but dominated by the commander in chief. After falling out over whether to use force in Iraq, Democrats are rallying around a broad program of help for servicemen and women, including better protection for troops in the field, citizenship, and tax breaks.

"For Democrats, veterans benefits are a way of working on a traditional Democratic strength - social policy - while shoring up a democratic weakness, which is national security," Mr. Pitney says.

Recent moves for veterans on Capitol Hill include:

• On Friday, the House partially lifted a ban on the right of veterans to receive both retirement and disability benefits, expected to cost $23 billion over the next 10 years. The ban on "concurrent receipt" was first passed in 1891.

• In another move expected to become law, House members also voted to make legal immigrants serving in the military eligible for US citizenship after one year in uniform. Current law requires a five-year wait for legal residents and a three-year wait for those in the military.

• On Wednesday, the House unanimously passed the Senate's version of tax relief for military men and women, after more than a year of delays. The bill increases military death payments from $6,000 to $12,000, and is expected to cost $122 million over the next 10 years. It also provides tax breaks on the sale of homes around military bases.

But a key to how serious the long-term commitment to veterans will be is the size of the appropriation for a VA-HUD bill, expected Monday in the Senate. Congress has increased discretionary funding for veterans some 38 percent since the Bush administration took power. Still, enrollment for VA healthcare is expected to increase to 7.1 million veterans this year, up from 2.9 million in 1998.

"Whenever Congress approaches a day like Veterans Day, if there are pending veterans' issues, there is usually a mad rush to the door [on veterans' issues]," says Steve Robertson, legislative director for the 2.8 million-member American Legion.

"But what we're looking for is whether the Senate adds the $1.3 billion for VA healthcare compensation that we have been promised," he says. Veterans' groups were "outraged" when the House dropped the funding, which will be needed to care for men and women returning from Iraq - and will be closely following moves in the Senate on Monday, Mr. Robertson adds.

Veterans' groups are also tracking progress on a $4.6 billion plan under way in the Bush administration to modernize VA facilities, including the likely phasing out of many current VA hospitals and clinics. "Our system, like any other in government, must live within its budget," said US Secretary of Veterans' Affairs Anthony Principi in a speech before the National Press Club on Friday.

Meanwhile, Democrats on Capitol Hill are refocusing their criticisms on the Bush administration's treatment of veterans, including long waits at VA hospitals and failure to provide adequate body armor to all troops in Iraq.

One of the most powerful issues among veterans is the so-called disabled veterans' tax. It's a term coined by Rep. Jim Marshall (D) of Georgia, who receives disability payments for his 22 months and one day in Vietnam that military retirees, under current law, would not. Supporters of the ban call it "double-dipping."

"Concurrent receipt is not a rallying cry, so we tried to think of a better way to describe the problem," says Mr. Marshall, a freshman lawmaker.

The term caught on with veterans' groups, who this fall began a new push on GOP leaders in Congress to end the "tax." The House vote on Friday was a first victory.

"I'm pleased that career military retirees will be getting benefits that they have earned, but there are still a large number who will not," says Brian Lawrence, assistant national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. He and other veterans' groups promise to push to eliminate the ban entirely.

More than half a million veterans lose military retirement benefits due to the ban, according to House Democrats. The GOP leadership's compromise on Friday restores payments to about a third of the most disabled veterans. Democrats plan to take this issue into the 2004 campaigns. "It's not going away," says Marshall.

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