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Freshman Sen. McCaskill takes the lead on a hot controversy

WASHINGTON—Sens. Claire McCaskill and Barack Obama led the charge last week on one of the hottest war-related controversies since Abu Ghraib.

They introduced legislation that would ensure that wounded soldiers are housed in clean conditions, have quick access to care and face an easier time claiming their disability benefits.

Their bill resulted from recent stories in The Washington Post about outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, one of the nation's premier military hospitals, who lived in squalor even as they battled the military bureaucracy for their benefits.

"This is about a system that is not trying to make it easy for the wounded to get what they deserve," McCaskill said during a news conference Thursday with Obama, an Illinois Democrat.

How did McCaskill, a freshman Democratic senator from Missouri who's been on Capitol Hill barely long enough for a cup of coffee, seize the spotlight on such a highly charged issue? And with Obama no less, a megawatt celebrity candidate for president who draws attention like wool draws lint.

This is the latest in an occasional series examining how novice McCaskill tries to translate the hopes of voters who sent her to Washington into becoming an effective operator in Congress. She's climbing a learning curve.

McCaskill didn't get a single question at their news conference

"He uses most of the oxygen," she said, laughing. "But one of the reasons I'm here is that he agreed to do it. I'm the last to complain about all the clicks being for him. The guy moves his hand and 1,000 shutters go off."

Their partnership started Presidents Day weekend.

Early word that an issue was brewing led Obama's staff initially to assume that it involved the Department of Veterans Affairs. Obama serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, so the issue seemed squarely in his wheelhouse.

It was actually more in McCaskill's. She serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Army runs Walter Reed, which treats active-duty soldiers.

On reading the newspaper reports, "I felt sick," McCaskill said.

"Somewhere along the line, someone saw this and said to themselves, `We're not supposed to complain.' Any fresh set of eyes looking at rotting ceilings and peeling mold, and realizing our battle-weary men and women are being forced into those circumstances would say, `Whoa. This is wrong.' Somebody ought to have pounded the table somewhere."

She decided that she would. She directed her staff to collect information about the problems, which the online magazine Salon first reported more than a year ago, and how she could help fix them.

In the Senate hierarchy, McCaskill knows her place: fourth from the bottom in seniority. She figured that more senior colleagues would wade quickly into the controversy. The outrage level was blinking red, after all. Still, there was no harm in being prepared.

When McCaskill and Obama aides spoke that Sunday and realized that their bosses had the same idea, a flurry of e-mails and phone calls ensued over the next 24 hours.

"Next thing I know," McCaskill said, "I got a call ... (reporting that) `Obama's office will drop a bill the first of the week. Do you want to work with him?' I'm beginning to learn this culture of the staff and how active and how on top of it they are."

About 8 o'clock Presidents Day evening, the two staffs posted a heads-up to their colleagues in other Senate Democratic offices that McCaskill and Obama planned to sponsor a bill to fix the problems at Walter Reed.

McCaskill was at a disadvantage. Obama had three aides who work on veterans' issues and knew the problems that wounded soldiers face. McCaskill was still gearing up. Until recently she'd had only one legislative assistant to handle her entire portfolio of issues involving the military, homeland security, commerce and Indian affairs.

She'd since hired more, and by chance it was the first week on the job for her new military expert, a former infantry captain who'd helped invade Iraq. He toured Walter Reed with other Senate aides.

Last week, McCaskill and her top aides gathered in her small, temporary office to prep her to tour Walter Reed on Wednesday. A key question to the hospital brass would be: In light of the problems, where's the accountability going to be in the senior chain of command?

McCaskill was cynical: "It's going to be like the prison," she told them, referring to the scandal over Abu Ghraib, a U.S. military prison in Baghdad where Iraqi prisoners were tortured. "The guys at the bottom will be held accountable and the guys at the top will not."

After her tour, she said most of the top officials she'd met recognized how steep a climb they face to restore trust. But some "seemed very closed-minded and defensive," she said. "One bragged this process has to be dispassionate, which seems to me to be oxymoronic."

Her bill with Obama has begun to draw bipartisan support. Hearings on Walter Reed will start this week.

It's pretty heady stuff for a senator who's just a few months removed from the state capital where she'd been the state auditor. She just might make a difference.

"Introducing legislation is not anything exceptional," said Ross K. Baker, an expert on the Senate at Rutgers University. "What is exceptional is if it eventually improves the conditions at Walter Reed. She would be in a charmed circle. Very few freshmen are able to author a major piece of legislation."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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