A bill to put veterans to work preserving and restoring national parks and other federal, state and local lands has become mired in a political fight, facing a procedural vote Wednesday in the Senate that could leave the legislation's future in doubt.
Democratic sponsors charge that the Veterans Job Corps bill is being held up by Republicans who refuse to allow any legislative victories to the Obama administration. Republicans counter that a GOP version of the legislation would lower veterans' unemployment without deepening the deficit.
The Democrats' bill is based on a proposal for a $1 billion program outlined by President Obama during his State of the Union address, but has been amended to include a number of Republican-sponsored provisions, including measures that would improve veterans' access to Internet tools to find jobs, and make it easier for troops leaving military service to get transition training for civilian life.
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his organization expected little opposition to the modified legislation. "Once it incorporated ideas from both sides of the aisle, I thought it would be an easy sell," said Tarantino, who served as an Army captain in Iraq.
But the bill last week faced attacks from several Republican senators. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky briefly filibustered to raise an unrelated issue involving Pakistan. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said the bill had no chance of passing the House and was meant to help "politicians and not veterans." Sen. John McCain of Arizona called the bill a "charade."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said the bill violates the Budget Control Act by adding to the deficit. Without 60 votes, the bill will be sent back to committee, a step that Democrats say would effectively kill the legislation. Sessions said, however, that Democrats could offer a bill that stays within the budget.
"I've been surprised at the many obstacles and weird arguments that have been thrown at us," the bill's co-sponsor, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who is chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview.
The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), issued an alternative version last week that removed the Veterans Job Corps from the legislation but added other provisions that do not require funding.
Murray tried to head off Republican opposition by incorporating most of Burr's legislation into her bill, as well as proposals made by several other Republicans, including a measure that would pressure states to make it easier for veterans to get civilian certification for their military skills.
"We figured that this comprehensive, bipartisan approach would certainly be enough to gain Republican support - even if it did come as we were inching closer to an election," Murray said in a floor speech last week. She said the bill would be paid for with budgetary offsets and would not add to the deficit.
IAVA's Tarantino was sharply critical of a point of order raised by Sessions. "Putting extra roadblocks in front of veterans is not what is needed," Tarantino said.
"Last time I checked, Senator Sessions voted for war and voted to send people to war," Tarantino said. "You can't break the faith with veterans."
Sessions responded in an interview, saying that "We're all worried about unemployment among veterans." He said that Burr's legislation would combat the problem while remaining "clearly within the budget."
The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, the country's two largest veterans organizations, said they hope the parties can work out a compromise.
"Both bills have ideas on how to get veterans quality jobs," said Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion's national economic division, who added that Burr's version stands a better chance of passing.
"VFW supports the concepts behind the Veterans Jobs Corps bill, but we have some concerns about the budgetary implications," said Ryan Gallucci, deputy director of national legislative service for the VFW. He said the VFW supports the job corps, but not if it comes at the expense of other programs for veterans.
As proposed in the Democrats' bill, the government would create the job corps to employ veterans in conservation, resource management and historic preservation projects at parks, public lands and national cemeteries.
It is loosely modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression to put hundreds of thousands of the unemployed to work on projects in government parks and lands.
Supporters of the Veterans Job Corps say it would help ease a maintenance backlog estimated at more than $10 billion faced by the Interior Department.
By Steve Vogel
September 19, 2012