WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr was under fire this week for publicly chiding veterans groups for what he says was insufficient outrage over allegations of misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The groups denied Burr’s accusations and criticized him in turn.
It was an unusual public spat involving the senior Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, who has a history of supporting legislation on behalf of veterans. But North Carolina’s senior senator does have some previous clashes with the groups _ most recently regarding a broad veterans health bill that Republicans, led by Burr, blocked in the Senate in February.
The current flap began when Burr wrote an open letter to veterans on May 23. In it he complained that the Washington staffs of Vietnam Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America and other advocacy groups who testified at a May 15 hearing should have called for the ouster of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki over the allegations of fake waiting lists used to cover up delays in getting medical care.
Shinseki resigned a week later. But at the time, Burr said the veterans advocates were “more interested in defending the status quo” and “protecting” their access at the VA. The Washington staffs of the advocacy groups, he said, have “ignored the constant VA problems expressed by their members and is more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.”
The reaction was swift and sharp.
“Your allegations are ugly and mean-spirited in every sense of the words and are profoundly wrong, both logically and morally,” wrote Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander-in-Chief William A Thien and Adjutant General John E. Hamilton. “Quite frankly Senator, you should be ashamed.”
“It is neither helpful nor accurate to characterize all veterans service and advocacy organizations with a single broad brush,” Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association wrote to Burr, adding that these groups fought to defend the benefits veterans earned.
“With the wars coming to a close, veterans, who did their duty overseas, expect the same of you in Congress,” he added. “Do not let them down.”
Rick Weidman, director of policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he was taken aback by the letter because his dealings with Burr have always been very cordial.
“If he wanted to meet with us tomorrow, we’d meet with him,” Weidman said.
Burr hasn‘t apologize for his critique. He said the angry responses only showed the groups were “far more outraged by my words than they have been thus far by any of the unfolding VA scandal or Secretary Shinseki’s mismanagement of the agency.” He said past reports by the Government Accountability Office raised the problem of coverups of wait times.
Veterans long have been a key concern for Burr, who represents a state where 800,000 live, and who could become the head of the Senate veterans committee should Republicans retake control of the chamber in November. In recent years, he has sponsored legislation to provide care for Marines and their families who were exposed to carcinogens in water at Camp Lejeune from the 1950s to the 1980s. Congress finally passed a Lejeune measure and President Barack Obama signed it in 2012.
Some of Burr’s efforts have not gotten out of committee. One of them would direct the heads of federal agencies to hire qualified veterans and would require states to issue licenses or credentials to veterans based on their military experience. He also has pushed for in-state college tuition for veterans recently separated from the service.
In February, though, Burr led the Republican opposition to the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. Among other provisions, the bill would have expanded a caregiver program for disabled post-9/11 veterans to those of all wars and their families.
The bill also included advance appropriations to ensure monthly compensation, pensions and education payments are protected from future budget fights; in-state tuition for veterans who recently went back to civilian life; and better access to mental health care and treatment for veterans who suffered sexual assaults while in the military.
The measure was sponsored by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the Senate veterans panel. It fell four votes short of the 60 it needed to advance to the Senate floor. Burr and all but two Senate Republicans voted against it, even though Republicans had approved major sections of the bill previously. Opponents wanted the bill to include provisions for sanctions against Iran.
Burr at the time said in a newsletter that the bill would have created “at least 15 new programs at VA while doing nothing to fix the vast problems that exist in current programs.” Burr said his main concern was that the bill expanded VA health care to veterans without service-connected disabilities and didn’t provide the resources needed to make sure the expansion didn’t result in “more frustrations and longer delays for veterans already in the VA system.”
Speaking on the Senate floor then, Burr approvingly cited commentary by Concerned Veterans for America, a group that advocates for smaller government, as saying, “If the VA is already failing to meet its obligations to veterans, is it wise to extend its mission even further? Of course not.”
Most veterans groups currently don’t issue legislative scorecards. Weidman said few votes occur specifically on veterans issues, and many decisions divide along partisan lines. One 2010 scorecard by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Action Fund, which describes itself as a nonpartisan advocacy associated with the veterans’ group, gave Burr a grade of “C.”
“I am sure that Sen. Burr has the best interests of veterans in his heart,” Sanders, the VA committee chairman, said in a statement Friday in response to questions. “Clearly he and I have political differences on how best to proceed. Despite that, I look forward to working with him to make sure that veterans of our country get the health care and other benefits that they need and deserve.”