What was meant to be a nonpartisan show of support for American veterans descended into partisan attacks on Tuesday, when Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) used his time to question whether Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) “doesn’t like veterans.”
The hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday, titled “Effect of Government Shutdown on VA Benefits and Services to Veterans,” was called in the early days of the federal government’s closure. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki warned the panel that while the VA’s hospitals remain open due to the budgeting procedure in place for them, many of the benefits that veterans depend on are set to be shut off come November 1. Should funding not be restored to his department, disability checks will not be issued, education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill will go unfulfilled, and the backlog of applications for benefits will continue to grow.
House Republicans have passed several piecemeal continuing resolutions since the shutdown began, opening only parts of government. Among those is the “Honoring Our Promise to America’s Veterans Act,” which grants the VA authority to pay for its services. Shenseki warned, however, that due to the way his department interacts with other parts of the government, such as the Treasury for IRS data, passing such a bill would still leave the VA hobbled. The Senate has yet to take up the bill and the Obama administration has issued a warning that the president would veto it should it reach his desk.
The decision of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to not take up the “Honoring Our Promise” Act led Hueselkamp to go on the attack against Reid during his time questioning Shinseki. “Do you think Senator Reid doesn’t like our veterans or veterans in particular?” Huelskamp asked the secretary. Receiving no response, he continued, pointing to the refusal of the Senate to pass the House’s version of appropriations bills dedicated to veterans as evidence of Reid’s lack of caring about those who have served. “As to why we are unable, Congress is unable, to do its business, I will leave that to the members to discuss,” Shinseki said carefully in response, noting that Reid “very highly values veterans.”
Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) took offense to Huelskamp’s statements, despite the efforts of Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) to walk them back. “That’s beneath this Congress and certainly beneath this committee to question a commitment to veterans,” Walz said. But Walz was willing to give the congressman the chance to take his staetments back, yielding him thirty seconds of his time to apologize to Reid. When Huelskamp instead used the afforded time to defend his question to Shinseki, Walz recalled the remaining few seconds for his own use.