The House of Representatives might not have been able to hold a speedy vote to end the shutdown but that doesn’t mean it didn’t hold lots of votes. And where there are votes, there are opportunities to use those votes against your opponents.
Veterans benefits are always fertile ground for this tactic and this week, the Republican National Committee launched a robocall campaign aimed at a handful of Democrats, nominally for their failure to support veterans.
On the target list are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D- Nev., Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. Wasserman Schultz is also chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Here’s part of the GOP script slated for Wasserman Schultz’s district:
"Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz thinks this shutdown is a game. She voted to cut off Florida’s veterans and their benefits while the government is shutdown. In a bipartisan vote the House of Representatives wanted to make sure our veterans got the benefits they earned fighting for our freedoms. These men and women served our country with honor but Debbie Wasserman Schultz would rather put partisan politics ahead of honoring our commitment to the people who defended this country."
The claim we’ll check is whether the congresswoman "voted to cut off Florida’s veterans and their benefits" during the shutdown.
When we asked the Republican National Committee which vote they had in mind, they pointed to H.J. Res 72, one of the mini-funding resolutions favored by House Republicans to reopen slices of the government. The bill was aimed at preventing the worst results of the shutdown rather than ending it entirely.
About 95 percent of Veterans Affairs workers are exempt from the worker furloughs that have happened because of the stalemate in Washington. Accordingly, most benefits and health care services have continued. But new claims for disability benefits have been stuck at the rear of an already large backlog of claims.
Plus, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned Congress that if the shutdown extended into November, his department would not have enough money to send out more than 5 million checks worth about $6 billion. The House measure would have provided funding to avoid that.
The bill won the support of every Republican and 35 Democrats and easily passed the House, but the Democratic-controlled Senate would have nothing to do with it.
As a party, Democrats took the approach that the best thing to do would be to end the shutdown across the board. With the Senate in Democratic hands, every House mini-funding bill was doomed. Wasserman Schultz was one of 157 House Democrats who voted against the bill.
So did the vote actually "cut off veterans and their benefits"? The phrasing in the robocall glosses over why benefits might be at risk. Regardless of which party was more responsible for the shutdown, and people of different political beliefs will disagree over that, Republicans have some responsibility for creating a situation where veterans benefits might be interrupted. It was House Republicans who pressed to defund President Barack Obama’s signature health care law that ended up leading to the shutdown.
Wasserman Schultz might have failed to back this particular approach to ensure benefits would continue under a worst-case scenario, but they were flowing at the time of the vote, and she did not vote to cut them off. The context is considerably more complex.
Veterans groups divided
While the Republicans present her vote as contrary to veterans' interests, the groups that lobby on veterans behalf offered a different view. Several large groups, including Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars, decided not to endorse the Republican bill.
"We didn’t take a position on this resolution," said Raymond Kelley, director of National Legislative Service for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Our response when asked was that Congress cannot effectively provide all of the benefits and services through a piecemeal approach and that we wanted Congress to pass a fully funded VA budget."
Veterans groups noted that the full House had passed an appropriations bill for Veterans Affairs in June. (Wasserman Schultz voted for it; the vote was 421-4.) That provided about $6.2 billion more than the stopgap measure. Veterans groups urged lawmakers of both parties in both houses of Congress to move forward with that.
One organization, the American Legion, did get behind the temporary House bill.
"We are here to support veterans, not get in the middle of a political fray," explained Louis Celli, legislative affairs director for the American Legion. "Of course, the whole government being open supports vets in a more holistic way, but we will never pass up an opportunity to help vets."
For example, housing and job training assistance programs exclusively for veterans are run by other departments that were untouched by the House bill.
Celli said his organization does not hold a "no" vote against any lawmaker. He said he understands many are strong supporters of veterans, and they wanted a bigger plan to fund all programs at once.
"We won’t come out and condemn any lawmaker who voted a different way," Celli said.
Many Democratic efforts to fund the entire government, including Veterans Affairs, were unsuccessful in the House. Wasserman Schultz’s office said she voted 17 times on measures that would have ended the shutdown.
The Republican National Committee said in a robocall that Wasserman Schultz voted to cut off benefits for veterans. The claim is suspect on several fronts. It focuses on one bill out of many that would have preserved ongoing funds for veterans programs. Wasserman Schultz could accurately claim she voted many more times to support such funding.
Some of the largest veterans organizations did not endorse the Republican measure, given the overall context of a government shutdown. And the wording in the robocall makes a muddle of the entire sequence of events, beginning with why veterans benefits might be at risk, and the reality that in the short run, most benefits have been flowing.
We rate the claim False.
Republican National Committee, Robocall script, Oct. 14, 2013
Email interview with Raymond Kelley, director of National Legislative Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Oct 15, 2013
Interview with Louis Celli, national legislative director, American Legion, Oct. 15, 2013
Email interview with Kirsten Kukowski, communications/research, Republican National Committee, Oct. 14, 2013
Email interview with Mara Sloan, press secretary, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Oct. 15, 2013
American Legion, Legion agrees with VA: End this shutdown, Oct. 9, 2013
American Legion, Because of the continuing government shutdown, VA closes all public services at its regional offices, Oct. 7, 2013
Politico, White House: Obama would veto 'piecemeal' funding bills, Oct. 1, 2013
Military Times, Vets caught in middle of shutdown fight, Oct. 2, 2013
ABC News, Eric Shinseki warns Congress millions of VA check may not go out if shutdown continues, Oct. 9, 2013
U.S. House of Representatives, Roll call HR 2216, June 4, 2013
The Independent Budget, Letter to House and Senate leaders on shutdown, Oct. 3, 2013
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