- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2003

The House voted yesterday to allow 250,000 veterans to collect both disability and retirement benefits at the same time, a compromise solution to a problem that has affected veterans since 1891.

The bill, which authorizes military spending for fiscal year 2004, which began Oct. 1, gives Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld flexibility in hiring and firing 700,000 civilian employees in the department.

It also includes a 4.1 percent pay raise for the military, lifts a decade-long ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons and establishes new rules to make it easier for legal immigrants serving in the military to gain citizenship.

It passed 362-40, in time for Veterans Day on Tuesday, and lawmakers said the bill sends a message to veterans and troops still serving that they will be taken care of.

“To all our young men and women ‘over there,’ and their loved ones waiting for them here at home: this one’s for you,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Republicans highly touted the agreement on veterans’ benefits, which authorizes $22 billion over the next decade.

“Today marks an end to the unfair penalty on disabled veterans,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, who made getting an agreement on the issue a top priority.

Democrats, though, said the agreement leaves out 390,000 veterans and criticized the fact that it is phased in over a decade.

“For the select few it does address, the tax may not fully end for 10 years,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “Many of these are veterans of World War II. Ten years is a long time to wait in any event, especially if you are a World War II vet. That is not good enough.”

Democrats tried a parliamentary maneuver to speed up the benefit and cover more veterans.

But Republicans said that was pure politics.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis, Florida Republican, who first introduced a concurrent receipts bill 18 years ago, said for the 40 years Democrats controlled the House before 1995 they “did not put a single dollar in veterans’ pockets from concurrent receipts.”

The Democratic proposal failed 217-188. The overall bill then passed with the support of all Republicans present and 144 Democrats, while 39 Democrats and the chamber’s lone independent voted against the bill. Two other Democrats voted present.

The bill is a conference report, meaning House and Senate negotiators have already agreed on it, so it is certain to pass in the Senate as well. That vote is expected next week.

The bill also gives the military some flexibility in complying with environmental rules, for example modifying the rule prohibiting “harassment” of marine mammals to allowing the Navy to test new sonar as long as it doesn’t kill or harm reproduction of marine mammals.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the bill is a solid step but said the United States must consider raising defense spending even further to make up for “neglect by the previous administration.”

“The funding gap created during the past decade will require many years of significant increases in defense spending,” he said. He said current defense spending, at 3.4 percent of America’s gross domestic product, compares unfavorably with the 9 percent spent during the Kennedy administration and 6 percent in the Reagan administration.


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