WASHINGTON – Minnesota Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz played a key role in pushing the largest expansion to veterans' education benefits in a decade — a measure that President Trump is expected to sign after lawmakers recently pulled together in a rare bit of unity.
Walz is hoping the passage of the "Forever GI" bill is a lesson that getting something done in Congress requires building a coalition of broad, bipartisan support.
"Otherwise, [such efforts] just become messaging," he said.
Amid polarizing debates over health care and the budget, the House and Senate approved a revamped GI bill that would allow veterans to go to college at any time in their lives, instead of losing the option after 15 years. The measure has won widespread praise from veterans organizations after nearly collapsing in the spring.
But Walz, the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, cautions that lawmakers will have to address more controversial veterans' health care issues when they return from break in September. Lawmakers approved emergency funding to the Veterans Choice Program last month, and they must agree on a longer-term solution that will raise larger issues of privatization that have dominated Republicans' agenda in Washington.
The program allows veterans to see private doctors on the government's dime, but it was on the verge of running out of money as patient visits skyrocketed. The new six-month extension buys lawmakers more time to debate improvements to the multibillion-dollar program.
Concerned Veterans for America has already launched ads criticizing Walz for initially voting against the extension of the stopgap funding in July, among other votes. The conservative organization says it's targeting Walz because he is a critical member of the committee.
"He will play a role in the future discussion around reforming community care and the choice program for the VA," said Dan Caldwell, the organization's director of policy. "We think it's important to highlight his votes to send a message not just to him but to other members on the committee that we are going to point out when you do the wrong thing."
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Walz became the ranking member on the veterans' affair panel in January, and efforts soon intensified over the scope of an expanded GI bill. Walz is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in Congress, having retired after 24 years in the Army National Guard as command sergeant major.
But when veterans support organizations opposed plans for how to pay for the legislation, it "went up in flames," Walz recalled. Some stakeholders raised questions about a proposal to pay for the future benefits by imposing the cost on veterans currently receiving benefits. Walz said he asked Republican leaders on the panel for a little more time to build consensus and find another way.
The parties agreed to pay for the $3 billion expansion by reducing housing allowance increases for future GI bill recipients. The legislation broadens benefits to include reservists, Purple Heart recipients and spouses and children of fallen soldiers. It would also provide funds for veterans to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
At a July hearing on the measure, John Kamin of the American Legion said the past few months had not been easy.
"With public disagreements dividing us, many believed it would be impossible to get anything done this year for veterans' education," Kamin acknowledged.
"For the last decade and a half, we've been sending reservists into harm's way at an unprecedented level … this is the least we can do as a country for those who put their bodies on the line for our freedom," said Patrick Murray of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
The biggest benefit to Minnesota? The National Guard troops deployed from Mankato to the Sinai Peninsula will now be eligible for schooling under the GI bill, according to Walz. The legislation expands education for several hundred Minnesota troops deployed overseas under a mobilization code that wasn't eligible for the benefits, even as they served alongside many officers who were.
"The soldiers … [were] contacting their congressmen and letting them know how this disparity personally affected them. … That provision is what we in the Minnesota National Guard have had our eye on," said Capt. Mindy Davis, education services officer for the Minnesota National Guard.
Walz said many have been surprised that the bill moved so quickly — it sailed through both chambers with no opposition. But addressing the Choice program at the Department of Veterans Affairs could be another matter, as debate renews about how to best serve veterans who face long wait and travel times to receive medical care at government facilities.
When lawmakers return to Washington after the August recess, Walz said he's preparing for a "candid and very, very challenging discussion on the capacity and the vision of what veterans' health care looks like." For some stakeholders, "this is a proxy fight for privatization."
He added: "We're going to have to get beyond the overly simplistic arguments … that it should be all privatization or all in the VA. We've always had a hybrid model."
Trump has advocated for more veterans to have access to private doctors. Yet Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin wrote in an op-ed for USA Today last month that the department's services would not become privatized under his watch.
He said the VA is ramping up private and internal services to address increasing patient visits.
"That is going to test this bipartisan resolve," Walz said.