WASHINGTON - Senior Republicans on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee have joined Democrats and veterans groups in a chorus of protest against proposals being considered by the Bush administration to shrink the number of military personnel who qualify for disability benefits.
Changes in the definition of service-connected disability "could have far-reaching and unintended consequences for millions of servicemembers and veterans," wrote the committee chairman, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., and three of the panel's subcommittee chairmen.
In a letter to President Bush, the Senate's top Democrats, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Harry Reid of Nevada, said it was "outrageous to pit one group of disabled veterans against another."
Daschle said the proposals, if retroactive, could disqualify about 1.5-million veterans, about two-thirds of those now in the VA disability program.
The proposals, which have not gone beyond the preliminary discussion stage, were to remedy what veterans regard as an injustice that docks the retirement pay of those who also receive disability compensation. Lawmakers came up with the proposals to fix the problem without adding to a deficit already at record levels.
Under current law, disabled veterans eligible for military retirement pay have their retirement reduced by the amount they receive in disability payments. Veterans groups argue that civilian federal employees on disability get full retirement benefits, and lawmakers for years have tried to extend that right to veterans.
The problem is cost: estimates are that full "concurrent receipt" of both benefits would cost $58-billion over 10 years.
This year the Senate, in its version of a $400-billion defense spending bill for next year, included full restitution of benefits. The House bill did not contain the provision, and the issue has become a major sticking point in reaching a compromise.
The White House and House GOP leaders have floated less costly compromise proposals that would phase in the increase of benefits over four or five years and narrow the definition of service-connected disabilities.
Democrats circulated a two-page draft, described as a White House document, that defines qualified disabilities as injuries and illnesses "directly resulting from the performance of official military duties." Actions unrelated to official government business, including travel between home and duty station, would not qualify.
Smith and the other committee Republicans cited estimates that 50 percent to 90 percent would not qualify if the standards were applied to current claims.