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Veterans need ongoing support

The Spokesman-Review

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig has one understanding of what it means for Congress to support U.S. military veterans. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has another.

Given the partisan and ideological gulf between conservative Idaho Republican Craig and liberal Washington Democrat Murray, that’s to be expected. The important thing for veterans, though, is that both lawmakers have a clearer idea than President Bush, whose budget for Veterans Affairs called for substantial benefit reductions.

Craig pushed an amendment through the Senate last week to head off the cuts advocated by his fellow Republican in the White House. Murray, who supported Craig’s amendment, offered one of her own that went further – much further – but lost 53-47 in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Bush had sent Congress a spending plan that required veterans to pay $250 a year for health care, more than doubled their co-payments on prescriptions from $7 to $15, and reduced federal funding of state veterans homes by almost $300 million. That’s a dispiriting message to send to Americans who have served the nation in uniform, many of them incurring serious health consequences in the process. Moreover, reneging on promises the nation made to those service members is a questionable strategy at a time when the Pentagon is having trouble meeting manpower targets.

The ongoing death toll in Iraq and the indefinite nature of the commitment already has slowed traffic in the nation’s recruiting offices. As in conflicts past, the nation needs to convey its appreciation to those who put their lives on the line for the American cause, however politicians define it. Not to mention, extend incentives to prospective volunteers.

As John Furgess, commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, explained in an appearance March 9 before the House and Senate committees on Veterans’ Affairs, supporting the troops means more than providing for their needs on the battlefield. Their morale needs to be kept up, and that happens through appropriate attention to their pay, their housing, their health care and their pensions, not only while they’re on active duty but in their later years as well.

Accordingly, the Craig amendment eliminates the cuts proposed by Bush. It increases discretionary spending for veterans benefits and services and adds $316 million for mental health services, prosthetics, VA facilities and cemeteries.

While Craig called it a clear message of support to the veterans, Murray criticized the Senate for not backing her own amendment, which would have raised the ante by another $2.85 billion.

In his March 9 remarks to the joint committee meeting, Furgess had invited the members to cast their eyes around the room, which was full of veterans.

“The faces looking back at you represent the 25 million veterans who demand that you improve upon the president’s paltry VA budget request for fiscal year 2006,” he said.

Arguably, the senators could have done better in responding to that challenge. Clearly, they could have done worse.

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