The Senate voted yesterday to expand veterans benefits as part of an emergency war spending bill, although a battle over unrelated immigration issues is threatening to delay final passage of the legislation for days.
Debate over previous military spending bills focused on President Bush's management of the Iraq conflict, but the White House's latest request has so far sparked few such skirmishes. Instead, lawmakers united behind three Democratic measures to aid service members, before drifting far afield to the subject of illegal immigrants.
One amendment, offered by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), would ensure that federal employees in the National Guard and reserves are paid the equivalent of their full civilian salary while on active military duty. Two others from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would allow families to stay in military housing for a full year after the death of a spouse, and enable all military dependents to receive $500,000 in total death benefits when a member of the armed forces dies on active duty. All three amendments were approved by voice vote.
Kerry, who sharply criticized Bush's handling of the Iraq war throughout his presidential campaign, cited the Iraq election as a turning point for many senators because it marked a shift -- however slow, and despite steady U.S. casualties -- toward Iraqis taking charge of their own affairs. "Time and circumstances have changed the situation," Kerry said. "There's a movement. Most of us feel there's more of a plan."
Democrats still intend to address Bush's Iraq policies as the spending debate continues. Pending amendments seek to pay for the war by rescinding tax breaks for high-income earners, to tighten U.S. policies on the treatment of prisoners, and to impose criminal penalties on companies that engage in war profiteering.
But even some of Bush's fiercest Democratic critics on Iraq said the most urgent concern is retooling veterans benefits to update health and death policies and to take into account the disruptions caused by extended duties of many service members. "Right now our concerns are taking care of the veterans," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
The $80.6 billion Senate bill would finance military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide aid to tsunami-ravaged nations in the Indian Ocean basin and fund all sorts of pet projects, including an additional $5 million for a Montana fish hatchery and $23 million to relocate a Capitol facility to make way for Washington's new Nationals baseball stadium.
The House opened the door to revising immigration policy last month by attaching tougher rules for states in issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants to its version of the spending bill. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) tried this week to deter senators from countering with their own provisions, but so far has been unsuccessful.
The sudden focus on immigration underscores the mounting pressure lawmakers face to address the swelling illegal workforce, a mainstay of numerous industries but a serious voter concern. One amendment, offered by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), addresses complaints from Chesapeake Bay seafood companies about a shortage of oyster shuckers and crab pickers, created because the ceiling on temporary visas for those workers was reached in January.