06/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Top McCain Veep Prospect Opposed Expanding Vet Benefits

Bobby Jindal is giving some conservatives their own "thrill up the leg" moment this campaign season. But while talk of putting the dynamic young Louisiana governor on the ticket with Sen. John McCain is prompting major media profiles, his voting record as a congressman reveals one potentially problematic area of disagreement with the Arizona Senator on an issue that has already gnawed at him this year: veterans' benefits.

Despite the fact that McCain recently skipped out on the vote over Sen. Jim Webb's bipartisan and seemingly presidential veto-proof "enhanced" GI Bill for veterans, his campaign website is clear on the benefits McCain does support:

"John McCain believes that all military retirees, even if they are not eligible for VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] health care, should be provided with meaningful access to health care. The federal government should ease the burden of health care costs on those people who have dedicated their careers to protecting our freedom. He has supported allowing military retirees to remain eligible for CHAMPUS or TRICARE military health care programs even when they reach the age of 65 and are eligible for Medicare. He has also consistently supported efforts to give military retirees tax breaks to help pay health insurance premiums, and he has opposed placing user fees on military retirees for using military medical facilities."

The problem with picking Gov. Jindal as a vice presidential nominee is that his voting record as a Congressman, before he became the nation's youngest governor, does not suggest such an expansive view of the benefits veterans should receive.

Louisiana Democrats threw a barrage of anti-veteran charges against Jindal during his gubernatorial run, some of them more damning than others. Like all members of Congress, Jindal voted against some procedural moves, which, taken alone, reveal little about his actual policy preferences. But according to FactCheck.org, which worked to get to the bottom of those claims, the one incontrovertible instance in which Jindal opposed the substance of increasing benefits for soldiers came during a 2006 debate about TRICARE -- a health care program run by the Department of Defense that is separate from the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

At that time, some in Congress wanted to expand access to TRICARE to all National Guard and Reserve troops even when not on active duty. Hundreds of thousands of these soldiers have been activated since 2001, some serving multiple tours in Iraq in what has been described as a "backdoor draft." Today, just under 100,000 are mobilized.

According to FactCheck.org's 2006 analysis of Jindal's voting record, "Republicans argued that expanding [TRICARE] to cover all non-active-duty Guard and Reserve would encourage their employers to drop them from private health care plans and let the government pick up the tab." Jindal joined that view and voted against the expansion of TRICARE. Such a position squares with Jindal's reputation for holding the line on spending increases. But it could conflict with Sen. McCain's own suggestion, on his website platform, that TRICARE should be made more accessible to "people who have dedicated their careers to protecting our freedom."

Increasingly, those people are National Guard and Reserve troops who are bolstering the ranks of a perilously over-stretched military in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Phil Riley, director of National Security and Foreign Relations for the American Legion, TRICARE benefits should be extended even to off-duty Guard and Reserve troops. "We're basically using them as what we call an 'operational reserve,'" he told The Huffington Post. "They're going much more often on deployments, and so the moral argument is, they're pulling [more than their] fair share."

Noting that TRICARE benefits were finally extended to on-duty reservists after Jindal left Congress in 2008, Riley said it is still important to extend benefits to those who are off-duty. "It stands to reason that they should get TRICARE," he said. "They pay tremendous costs; in some cases they take a hell of an economic hit. A grateful nation should owe them for that sacrifice."

Should he become John McCain's running mate this fall, that's a view Bobby Jindal might find more compelling than he once did as a Congressman.

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