WASHINGTON — Both parties are using a brief pre-election session of Congress to make campaign appeals to returning veterans.
Senate Democrats are pushing President Barack Obama's proposed $1 billion Veterans Jobs Corps to relieve high unemployment among servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. House Republicans are pushing a bill making it a crime to benefit from lying about military services or awards.
Lawmakers in both parties agreed this week to come up with more money to help the Veterans Administration reduce a disability claims backlog.
Obama proposed a job corps for veterans last February that would put place them in jobs restoring public lands and beefing up local police and fire departments. It cleared a preliminary test vote Tuesday, as was expected, but aides said progress could easily unravel as lawmakers negotiate what amendments and how many of them will be allowed.
Although the legislation is not expected to become law this session, it gives lawmakers a chance to display their support for the nation's 21 million-plus veterans before Congress adjourns for the campaign season.
The unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has been trending lower in recent months, but hit a bump last month. Joblessness among them was nearly 11 percent in August compared, compared with an 8.1 percent jobless rate nationwide.
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said the problem is likely to grow as troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan.
"For the troops, when they come home, the fight is not over. There's another fight when they get back home to America," said Nelson, the bill's lead sponsor who is in a tough re-election contest. "We need to give them as many opportunities as possible to succeed when they get back home here in America."
Nelson said Tuesday he still expects the GOP to try to block the bill.
The White House released a statement Tuesday declaring its support for the measure.
"Many of these veterans returning home have been unable to find suitable employment commensurate with their training and experience from over ten years of war," said a statement from the White House Office of Management and Budget. "Furthermore, America's public lands face enormous unmet infrastructure and facility maintenance needs, and this country's veterans have the skills to meet these demands."
House Republicans plan a vote this week on their "stolen valor" bill. The Supreme Court struck down a similar law in June, saying false claims about being awarded medals for military service are "contemptible" but are still protected by the First Amendment.
Rep. Joe Heck, a Nevada Republican who is in a tough re-election contest, says his legislation is constitutional because it would narrow the scope of the law to punishing just those who seek to financially benefit by lying about their service and awards.
The House passed separate veterans legislation Tuesday that directs the VA to improve outreach to veterans about the higher education opportunities available to them. The bill also requires states to take into consideration military training when granting licenses or credentials to vets in certain occupations.
House Republicans also plan a series of hearings reviewing the Veterans Affairs Department's performance on key issues, such as its lack of progress in reducing the disability claims backlog.
Lawmakers want to return to their districts to campaign for re-election as soon as possible. House members could leave as early as Friday and are expected to stay in Washington no later than the end of next week. The Senate is likely to have a shortened September schedule too.
That means there is almost no time to pass substantive legislation – but enough time to try to score some points with voters.
Neither chamber has moved on Obama's veterans-jobs proposal until now. To attract GOP lawmakers, Sen. Patty Murray, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs' Committee, incorporated some of their proposals, such as providing veterans with access to computers at one-stop centers for job searches. She said there are 720,000 unemployed veterans in the country.
"Too often on the day our service members are discharged, we as a nation pat them on the back, thank them for their service, but don't give them a helping hand into the job market. That has to end," Murray said.
Veterans groups have largely been supportive of establishing the jobs corps, but there has not been a clamor for that specific program. It's considered one of several steps that could improve the jobs picture for veterans.
Ramsey Sulayman, legislative associate at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he understands that it's an election season and "everybody's angling," but he also believes lawmakers in both chambers are making a good-faith effort to help veterans as the session winds down.
"You hope people are doing things for altruistic reasons, but the bottom line is, if they're helping out veterans, we're happy with that," Sulayman said.
Even if the Senate ends up passing the measure, it probably will go nowhere in the House. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said his committee has received few details about the program and said he's focused on expanding existing job-training programs with the VA.
"What we're focused on is helping veterans find long-term unemployment and not some gimmick," Miller said.
The House will hold a hearing next week on the lengthy wait times that many veterans have experienced when seeking mental health care or in resolving disability claims.
"This is not political in any sense," Miller said. "Lives are at risk and the VA needs to be laser-focused on finding solutions to ensure our veterans who are suffering from the invisible wounds of war are treated quickly when they reach out for help."
Lawmakers also carved out additional money for dealing with disability claims from veterans as they unveiled a six-month spending bill that would finance the government's day-to-day operations until next March. The Department of Veterans Affairs says the flow of VA claims has increased 48 percent over the past three years and the claims have also grown more complex as returning soldiers seek compensation for more medical conditions.