The 100-year-old Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of the players in the fabled veterans lobby, is getting some professional help to energize its grass-roots political troops and increase the group's visibility on Capitol Hill.

Although noted for its 3 million members, including its Ladies Auxiliary, and VFW posts in every congressional district, the VFW has recognized that the lobby has lost some political luster with its aging membership and with fewer veterans in Congress. Kenneth Steadman, executive director of the VFW's Washington office, says fewer than half the members of Congress served in the military and there are only about 25 "who've smelled gunsmoke."

"There are fewer veterans in Congress to respond to their home districts," Steadman said in an interview. "We need to get veterans back on the agenda."

The VFW has hired Bonner & Associates, a major grass-roots firm, to teach its key members how to better organize at the state and congressional district level, set up phone banks and get their issues across to political candidates, including presidential candidates.

"Often non-veterans [in Congress] turn out to be good friends, but they have to be acquainted with our issues," said Dennis Cullinan, director of national legislative services for the VFW. "We want to get better."

Bonner has a permanent staff of 20 and hires additional people--sometimes as many as 300 extras--depending on the job.

President Jack Bonner said the average congressional district has 23 VFW posts and 5,500 dues-paying members.

"This presence . . . gives them potential political clout that is unmatched by other powerful groups in Washington, such as the AFL-CIO, AARP and the Chamber of Commerce," Bonner said.

Veterans have achieved some success in Congress in recent weeks, with the House approving $1.7 billion more than what President Clinton originally proposed for veterans health care programs. Vice President Gore has since pledged the administration's support for $1 billion. Yesterday, a House Appropriations subcommittee voted for $18.4 billion for veterans health care, $1.1 billion more than the Clinton budget.

Steadman says the VFW is also concerned about legislation for long-term health care coverage, educational opportunities for veterans and higher pay for service members. The military services, he said, are "overcommitted, undersized; their families are suffering. . . . With a trillion-dollar budget surplus projected, why should service members be left out?"

Overcoming Death and August

The Dutko Group, the lobby shop founded by the late Democratic activist and major Democratic fund-raiser Dan Dutko, is crowing these days about its very busy August. The firm was hired by five new clients last month, normally a slow month, what with Congress away on recess.

Some of the folks at Dutko had worried about gossipy speculation that the shop would be hurt by Dutko's death in a biking accident in Colorado in July. And there had been talk that the bipartisan company was looking to add a "name" to its team. But Ronald C. Kaufman, one of the shop's five remaining partners, said he wants "folks to understand that we are growing and doing fine."

"I'm sure Dan is watching from somewhere and he'll be pleased," said Kaufman, a former political director in the Bush White House. "There's no reason for us to rush to judgment on any personnel matter."

The five new clients are Fruit of the Loom; Level 3 Communications; the Massachusetts School of Law; the Association for Competitive Technology, an alliance of software manufacturers; and the Eastern Pequot Indian Nation.

GOP Figure Joins Chamber

Ted Welch, Republican fund-raiser extraordinaire and former finance chairman for Lamar Alexander's defunct presidential campaign, has joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a senior fellow in public policy and political affairs.

Chamber officials believe Welch will boost the group's efforts to expand its role in House and Senate elections, in support of business-oriented--Republican and Democratic--candidates.

"The chamber will contribute money, raise funds from our members in the districts, conduct get-out-the-vote campaigns and provide staff and press support in these close races. Ted Welch will provide the leadership the chamber and the business community need for this major undertaking," president Thomas J. Donohue said in a prepared statement.

Ex-Rep. Neumann on Social Security

Wisconsin Republican Mark W. Neumann, a former member of the House, has signed on as chairman of the Council for Government Reform's Senior Bill of Rights Campaign, a national effort to spark debate on Social Security reform initiatives.

Neumann was a member of the House Budget and Appropriations committees during his two terms and "compiled an impressive record as a budget cutter and a spending hawk," according to a prepared statement by CGR president Charles Hardin.

Despite losing his bid for the Senate in 1998, Neumann had been more effective than any other GOP candidate that year in identifying himself as the protector of Social Security in budget debates.

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