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Veterans bill expansion meets GOP opposition

Donnelly asks that 122nd Guard base stay as fighter wing

A Capital Hill fight is unfolding in one of the few areas typically free of partisan gridlock – federal assistance to military veterans.

Senate Democrats have proposed a $21 billion expansion of veterans’ health, education and job-training benefits. Minority Republicans contend the plan is too costly and will overwhelm the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We are working with our Republican friends right now to try to alleviate those concerns, to try to make sure we have pay-fors for all the things that are of concern to them,” Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

During a floor speech Wednesday, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., called on Democratic leadership to give Republicans “the opportunity to not only debate but vote on an alternative, which in my opinion addresses the issue in the very best way.”

He was referring to a scaled-back proposal by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. It would include U.S. sanctions against Iran and be offset by preventing undocumented immigrants from receiving child tax credits.

In remarks broadcast by C-SPAN, Burr said Wednesday that the Democrats’ bill “could hurt veterans, not help them” by overloading VA facilities and services.

Coats, an Army veteran, later said: “We need to be very, very careful how we go forward in making sure that the care (that veterans) get through the VA system is the very best care possible.”

The Democrats’ legislation, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, would be funded through savings from the phase-out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Donnelly praised provisions of Sanders’ bill, among them: providing mental health education to veterans’ families and caregivers; requiring public universities to extend in-state tuition to veterans regardless of where they live; and expanding job training and internship programs for veterans.

“We’re going to try to make sure that we serve in this bill those who have served us,” Donnelly said.

Sanders’ bill also includes legislation introduced by Donnelly that would improve case management and assisted living opportunities for victims of spina bifida, a birth defect linked to a parent’s exposure to Agent Orange defoliant used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.

Also Wednesday, Donnelly said he had sent a letter to leaders of the Air Force requesting that Fort Wayne’s Air National Guard base remain a fighter wing.

The letter was a response to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recommendation Monday that the Air Force retire all 340 of its A-10 combat jets, including 20 flown by the 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne.

“Any decision to divest the A-10 should be accompanied by a responsible plan to transition the 122nd FW to another air combat mission,” Donnelly wrote in the letter.

Col. David Augustine, commander of the 122nd Fighter Wing, has said he hopes the base will receive F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.