Democrats court the group after GOP leaders balk at expanding benefits for them.
WASHINGTON - As the 2004 election year approaches, Democrats are making a strong bid for the support of a traditional GOP constituency: disabled military veterans.
Democrats in Congress seized an opportunity to appeal to veterans recently after the Bush administration indicated it does not support a proposed improvement in disability benefits. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has told members of Congress that he will ask President Bush to veto the measure if Congress passes it. The administration estimated that the bill, which would affect nearly 600,000 veterans, would add an estimated $58-billion to the federal deficit over the next 10 years.
For nearly two decades, House Republicans such as Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, have been outspoken sponsors of legislation that would allow retired disabled veterans to collect both full retirement and disability benefits. At present, if they receive disability pay, their retirement benefits are trimmed by a commensurate amount.
But Bilirakis' bill has never come to a vote in the House, though the Senate has approved a similar proposal several times and it has had as many as 400 House co-sponsors in some years. Most recently, the Senate voted in August for a measure offered by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., that would make the change in benefits as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2004.
Administration opposition to the measure has put Bilirakis and other House Republicans with close ties to veterans in a bind. If they move to bring the measure to a vote in the House, they will be defying their party leaders. If they don't, they will be disappointing veterans.
Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., meanwhile, has drawn urgency to the issue by collecting signatures on a so-called "discharge petition" that would bring it to a prompt vote in the House. If it were to pass in the House, the measure would likely become part of the final version of the defense bill sent to Bush.
Veterans group leaders think the timing of this Democratic initiative may force the administration to back down from its opposition to the improved benefits for disabled veterans - an issue that is commonly referred to as "concurrent receipt."
Bob Manhan, Veterans of Foreign Wars director of national security and foreign affairs, notes that American military personnel are now being killed and wounded in Iraq, the president's popularity is declining and both parties are vying for the veterans' vote in the 2004 election.
"This is vote-getting time," Manhan observes. "For whatever reasons, the Republican leadership seems to be giving Democrats an opportunity to make a political issue of this."
In Florida, this issue already seems to be having an impact. Bobby D. Howell of Largo, who voted for Bush in 2000, says the president's stance on concurrent receipt will probably cause him to vote for a Democrat in 2004.
"I won't vote for President Bush," says Howell, whose military retirement pay is cut by $500 a month because he also receives disability. "He told military personnel during his campaign that he would take care of the military, and he hasn't kept his promise."
House Republican leadership, bowing to the administration's wishes, has instructed GOP mem-bers not to sign the discharge petition.
So far, 202 House members have signed the petition, virtually all of them Democrats. But 218 signatures are needed to bring concurrent receipt to a House vote.
Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, was among the signers of the discharge petition; Republican Reps. Bilirakis, Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville and C.W. Bill Young of Largo were not.
Marshall said he was told these Republicans are being restrained "under penalty of death," meaning they will lose their party's support in the next election if they disobey.
"I think it is indefensible for the Republicans not to step forward and make it happen for veterans," Marshall says. "Now is the time for them to put up or shut up."
Bilirakis declined to comment. But Brown-Waite has tried to explain to veterans in her district why she has not signed the petition.
"Discharge petitions are tools of last resort to be used only when all other options have been exhausted...," argues Brown-Waite. "I am confident an agreement can be reached to ensure federal funding for concurrent receipt and that a bill can be passed under Republican leadership in both houses of Congress."
Jill Greenberg, spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., says this is just one of several issues on which the Bush administration has disappointed veterans. She notes the administration is also taking steps to close some Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.
"This administration hasn't been particularly generous to our veterans," Greenberg says.
White House spokesman Taylor Gross disagrees. He notes that Bush's budget for the VA is the largest proposed by any president. Bush asked for $63.6-billion for fiscal 2004, about $33.4-billion of which will go for benefits for 3-million veterans and spouses.
"The president is committed to America's brave servicemen and women," Gross says. "We know that Republicans in the House are committed to concurrent receipt and we will look closely at any congressional proposal."
As veterans groups see it, the House Republican leadership and the White House have further compounded the problem by proposing a compromise that is unacceptable.
Under that compromise, full benefits would be phased in over the next five years, but would be limited only to those veterans who are disabled in the performance of their duty.
As a result, an estimated two thirds of the current and future disabled veterans would be ineligible for disability benefits.
"The VFW and other veterans groups do not support redefining service-connected disability," says Manhan.
Marshall says that with this proposal, the GOP is telling military personnel currently fighting in Iraq that their benefits are being cut.
"What kind of a president puts the military into combat and then says he's going to cut their benefits?" he asks.
In response to the White House proposal, veterans groups say, Bilirakis and Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., have drafted an alternative compromise that would allow concurrent receipt to become law, but limit it to veterans with the most severe disabilities. Unlike the GOP leadership proposal, this one would still cover veterans with disabilities unrelated to military duty.
But veterans groups say Bilirakis and Jones so far have been unable to persuade the White House and the House GOP leadership to accept their proposal.
The issue of concurrent receipt has been debated in Washington for more than 100 years. According to the VFW, it was the 53rd Congress, which met in 1893-95, that decided to prohibit disabled veterans from receiving full retirement benefits.
Since then, military veterans have argued that they should be treated no differently than other government retirees. A disabled veteran who retires from the Agriculture Department, for example, is not subject to a decrease in retirement benefits, according to veterans groups.
Opponents of concurrent receipt argue that it would be abused. Even now, they say, some veterans are receiving disability pay for injuries they had before they joined the military.
But Marshall, who receives some disability pay for his service during the Vietnam War, says it makes no sense that he can collect it after spending less than two years in the military while those who serve 20 years to earn retirement pay cannot collect it.
"It's a case of "serve more, get less,"' Marshall says.