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Veterans Groups Question McCain Voting Record

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/mccainrnccrop-300x200.jpgSen. John McCain (Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke, wdcpix.com)

Part 1: McCain’s Pro-Vet Image Clashes With Record

PHOENIX — Though polls show that Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, enjoys solid support from veterans, some vet organizations are sharply critical of the Arizona senator’s legislative voting record on issues important to them. They have lambasted him for voting against the 21st Century G.I. bill; against providing more money for veterans’ health care, and for a proposal that many regard as an effort to privatize their care.

The 21st Century G.I. bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate last May and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on June 30. The legislation, which Sen. Barack Obama supported, increases educational benefits for post 9/11 veterans who serve a minimum of three years. But McCain opposed the measure, citing as a problem its bestowal of full education benefits to members of the military after just one stint in the armed services.

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Mccain_6572.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Under pressure from veterans’ groups because of his non-support, McCain sponsored competing legislation that provided benefits to soldiers who served longer terms. “Otherwise, we will encourage more people to leave the military after they have completed one enlistment,” McCain argued. McCain’s plan would also have allowed benefits to be transferred to a soldier’s family members.

McCain’s opposition to the G.I. bill was the reason that former Marine Sgt. Adam Kokesh cq, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, says he staged a protest on the convention floor during McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Kokesh, 26, demanded an examination of McCain’s voting record on vet issues as he was dragged out by security personnel.

Meanwhile, Paul Riekhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a Sept. 8 interview on MSNBC that vet groups would continue to pounce on McCain for his opposition to the bill. “We told America that if Sen. McCain was on the wrong side of the G.I. bill, it would hang around his neck for the election,” Riekhoff told Rachel Maddow. “That’s exactly what’s happening now.”

This is not the first time that McCain’s voting record on veterans’ issues has been criticized — particularly on health care. According to an AFL-CIO TV ad, broadcast in six battleground states in late July and early August, McCain talks a lot about supporting veterans but repeatedly votes against their interests. McCain, claims the ad, “took Bush’s side against increasing health-care benefits for veterans.”

The ad campaign, however, was criticized as “unduly harsh” by FactCheck.org, a non-profit, non-partisan, consumer advocacy project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. In support of its claim that McCain was against increasing health-care benefits for veterans, the union cited four of his Senate votes. Three–in 2004, 2005 and 2006–were against Democratic amendments to the annual appropriation bills of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. All three votes failed along party lines in the then GOP-controlled Senate.

In each case, FactCheck.org found that McCain had supported different amendments to increase veterans’ health benefits, either that day or the next. “Specifically, in 2004, McCain voted against an increase of $1.8 billion, but an increase of $1.2 billion passed by unanimous consent,” FactCheck.org stated, “In 2005, he voted against an increase of $2.8 billion, but voted for a $410-million increase. And in 2006, he voted against a $1.5 billion increase, but later voted for an $823 million increase.”

The fourth McCain vote cited by the AFL-CIO was against a March 2007 supplemental spending bill for the Iraq war that t was vetoed by President George W. Bush. The bill included $1.77 billion in additional funding for veterans’ health-care benefits. Soon after Bush’s veto, McCain voted for an alternative version, signed into law, that included slightly more money, $1.79 billion, for veterans’ health benefits.

McCain says that many of his votes against veteran funding measures were because the bills were loaded with earmarks for unrelated projects. “If it’s me sitting in the Oval Office…those wasteful spending bills are going the way of all earmarks — straight back to Congress with a veto,” McCain told the American Legion convention last month. “When we make it clear to Congress that no earmark bill will be signed into law, that will save many billions of dollars that can be applied to essential priorities, and above all to the care of our veterans.”

It is McCain’s proposal for a “Veterans Care Access Card” that has draw some of the most intense fire from veterans groups. The card would allow low-income veterans and those in rural areas to use health-care providers outside the VA system.

Critics charge that the proposal is a first step toward privatizing the $100-billion-a-year VA system, because it is being circulated at the same time that McCain is making statements about focusing VA health care on vets with injuries that “are a direct result of combat.” Some vet groups say that the senator wants to direct VA services only to those who have suffered combat injuries in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones.

McCain insists that the “card is not intended to either replace the VA or privatize veterans’ health care.” The card would be made available, he says, to “veterans with illness or injury incurred during their military service, and by those with lower incomes.”

Among the groups opposing the access card is the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Dennis Cullinan, the organization’s national legislative director, told GovernmentExecutive.com that the card would take funding and patients away from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, “undermining the entire system over time.”

Dave Autry of the Disabled American Veterans, which is also skeptical of the card, said Veterans Affairs already pays for outside doctors for vets who live far away from VA medical facilities. “Is this veterans’ access card an expansion of current authority?,” Autry said, “Or is it something designed to supplement the VA system? Or would it open the door for greater privatization of the VA?” Autry said his group is “reserving judgment” until more details are known.

Veterans groups are leery of any efforts to privatize the VA, especially after the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal that was, in part, related to privatization of key services. The medical center came under fire after The Washington Post reported that wounded soldiers were living in vermin-infested quarters, in some cases lacking heat and water.

“Walter Reed was a warning sign to be very cautious when you push for privatization,” Autry said, “because things can go wrong without proper oversight.”

McCain voted to table an amendment to a 2006 defense appropriations bill that would have prevented the Dept. of Veteran Affairs from outsourcing support services at Walter Reed.

Paul Sullivan, executive director for Veterans for Common Sense, a 13,000-member advocacy group, said that McCain’s proposed access card’s focus on vets with battlefield injuries raises the possibility that benefits for veterans with non-combat wounds, but with medical conditions linked to military service, will be further restricted.

The Army Times reports that the Bush administration is already rationing benefits based on combat and non-combat injuries for a wide array of benefits — including disability payments, traumatic injury insurance and death gratuity payments.

“Sen. McCain repeatedly uses the phrase ‘wounds of war,’” Sullivan said, noting that 20 percent of the women deployed overseas report being sexually assaulted or harassed. “Would John McCain argue that a service member who was raped should not receive VA care?”

The VA is now treating 350,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. That number is expected to increase as fighting continues and post-battlefield health issues, like post-traumatic stress, raise demand for veterans’ health care, he said. Sullivan estimates there are nearly 900,000 veterans currently eligible for VA services.

While McCain’s voting record has cost him the support of some veterans’ groups, he still retains strong backing among rank-and-file veterans, 91 percent of whom are men and most of whom are 50 and older, according to polls.

This is one area where McCain has a healthy lead. More Americans trust McCain than Obama to ensure that wounded veterans get quality health care. A poll conducted in April during the congressional debate over the G.I. bill by the Harvard School of Public Health and Harris Interactive found that 53 percent of Americans believed that McCain was more suited to help wounded veterans, compared to 35 percent for Obama. Some 55 percent of independents said McCain would make sure veterans received quality care, versus 29 percent for Obama.

McCain’s voting record of generally supporting lower spending on veterans’ issues raises questions among some vets about his commitment to overhaul the Dept. of Veterans Affairs to improve health care and other services. Obama’s voting record, by contrast, suggests that he’s more willing to reform the department, though most of his efforts have been derailed by Senate Republicans or Bush.

“Everyone agrees that there should be a plan to take care of the veterans when they come home,” Sullivan said. “Our principal argument is there is still no plan right now.”

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