Bush, Congress Spar Over Vets

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By DEB RIECHMANN
The Associated Press
Saturday, November 10, 2007; 4:06 PM

CRAWFORD, Texas -- President Bush said Saturday that Congress' Democratic leaders should celebrate Veterans Day by finally passing a spending bill covering programs for veterans.

"Congressional leaders let the fiscal year end without passing this bill they know our veterans need," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "The time to act is running out. ... The best way members of Congress can give thanks to our veterans is to send me a clean bill that I can sign into law."

Bush's dig at Democrats didn't tell the whole story.

Congress has never delivered to Bush a veterans affairs spending bill by Veterans Day, even when Capitol Hill was run by Republicans. And even veterans' groups have been reluctant to criticize this year's Congress for the delay, because they are thankful for large budget increases already engineered by Democrats since they assumed the majority in January. They added $3.4 billion to the veterans' budget in February and $1.8 billion in May.

Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania touted the party's commitment to veterans.

"Democrats in Congress are working together with the president to see that veterans aging and young and their families receive the benefits they need and deserve," he said, delivering the weekly radio address for his party.

The veterans bill has gotten caught up in a larger battle between the White House and Congress over Democratic efforts to add about $23 billion for domestic programs to Bush's $933 billion proposal for all agency budgets passed by Congress each year. Only late last week did Congress approve the first two of 12 spending bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

Democrats had sought to combine the veterans spending measure with ones for education, health and job training programs to force passage of increases for the other programs. But Bush has insisted that the veterans money come to him in a stand-alone bill, and the veterans portion was stripped from the larger legislation this week, leaving that funding in limbo.

The veterans' bill adds $3.7 billion over Bush's request for the Veterans Affairs Department's budget. The increase would ease waiting times to claim VA health benefits and add money to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

In a joint letter to Bush on Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the president that the Democratic Congress wants to work with him.

"Key to this dialogue, however, is some willingness on your part to actually find common ground," they wrote. "Thus far, we have seen only a hard line drawn and a demand that we send only legislation that reflects your cuts to critical priorities of the American people."

Bush urged the public to remember the service of members of the armed forces in wartime on Sunday, Veterans Day.

"They come from different generations and different backgrounds," he said. "But they are united by a commitment to honor, duty and love of country that has kept America free. They continue to strengthen and inspire our nation. And we will never forget what we owe them."

The White House is planning an event Sunday during which the president will honor veterans, spokesman Gordon Johndroe said from Texas, where Bush is spending the weekend at his ranch. Johndroe declined to discuss where or with whom the event would take place. Vice President Dick Cheney is paying a visit to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, and was scheduled to speak briefly.

On Thursday at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, four days ahead of the holiday, Bush paid an emotional visit to soldiers maimed or badly burned in combat and said his administration is determined to mend the nation's system of caring for veterans. He toured a new $45 million, privately funded rehabilitation center for veterans at the hospital, amid scrutiny of veterans' care and discontent among returning troops after extended tours in Iraq.

The president said his administration had put in place recommendations of the commission he created after reports about substandard outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He urged Congress to act on other recommendations that require legislation.

Bush is scheduled to return to the White House on Monday.


© 2007 The Associated Press

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