Alarm Among Veterans Groups: Buyer and Republicans Plan Major VA Cuts

Asbury Park Press (New Jersey)

Smith replacement signals GOP crackdown on party dissension

The replacement of Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., on the House Veterans Affairs Committee signals that Republican leaders and the Bush administration intend to take a hard line on dissension in their ranks — and on spending for veterans programs — as budget and political pressures build from war, the budget deficit and the president’s coming drive to partially privatize Social Security.

That’s the assessment from veterans activists and political observers, who were surprised at the harsh punishment meted out Thursday to Smith, the dean of New Jersey’s congressional delegation and a 24-year member of the veterans panel.

Smith was stripped of the committee chairmanship two years before his six-year term was to expire in retaliation for challenging party leaders on veterans spending.

“He was stabbed in the back. It happened so fast, there was no time for the veterans’ groups to react,” said Larry St. Laurent of Jackson, a Korean War veteran who has worked with Smith on veterans’ issues for more than 20 years.

Smith organized “veterans for Bush” to support the president in the 2004 election, so the GOP move will anger those voters too, said St. Laurent, who participated in that get-out-the-vote effort and formerly ran the Ocean County Veterans Service Bureau.

Veterans groups credited Smith’s stubbornness with winning more funding for their causes, and holding the line for those programs during fiscal year 2004, said members of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, who were meeting in Texas this week when news came of Smith’s ouster.

“This guy has really had a positive impact on veterans’ benefits. Why would you want to replace him at this point?” said Doug LeValley, veterans affairs director for Franklin County, Ohio.

But Smith embarrassed Bush administration officials last year by pushing to reinstate $1.2 billion they wanted trimmed from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spending. House leaders replaced Smith with U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., a lawyer, Army Reserve colonel and veteran of the first Gulf War, who’s been in the military for 24 years and is close to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

In a statement Thursday, Buyer said he wants to focus the VA “on its core constituency to honor our commitment to ensure that VA benefits and health care are sustainable in the future.” That set off alarms among veterans advocates in Washington that there could be moves to trim the VA health care system.

Buyer also has a record as a strong fiscal conservative and party loyalist who served on the House Republicans’ management team during the 1999 impeachment trial of former president Bill Clinton.

While Smith’s strong anti-abortion and low-tax stances kept him in company with conservatives, he still parted ways with the Republican majority on 23 percent of votes in the last congressional section, according to tallies by Congressional Quarterly magazine.

Still, Smith’s expulsion struck some as over-the-top, even in a Congress where party loyalty is enforced on both sides of the aisle.

House GOP leaders are sending a message that “your job’s in jeopardy if you put principles above politics,” said John Furgess, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“They want to shut him up, that’s what it is. I don’t know if it will work with him,” Laurent said. “Chris had more guts than anyone else who had that job.”

Some supporters say Republicans should at least reinstate Smith to a lower-ranking seat on the committee.

“The congressman’s established record of service directed toward improving the quality of life for veterans warrants nothing less,” wrote state Sen. Leonard T. Connors Jr. and state Assembly members Christopher J. Connors and Brian E. Rumpf, all R-Ocean, in a letter Friday to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

“This is not about party politics, it should be about veterans,” the Ocean County Board of Freeholders wrote to Hastert in a letter Friday.

In a meeting with reporters Thursday before leaving on a flight to see tsunami relief efforts in south Asia, Smith said he had wanted to double veterans’ survivors insurance benefit from $250,000 to $500,000. But without a seat on the committee, Smith conceded, that will be difficult to accomplish.

“It took 50 years to recognize Korean War cold injuries (as disabilities) but Chris did that,” St. Laurent said. “I’ve been involved in this for 50 years, and we’ve never had a senior member of the committee removed.”

Gannett News Service and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Kirk Moore: (732) 557-5728

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