Walter Reed Army Medical Center shapes war debate

A House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center yesterday could further pressure Democratic leaders to adopt a more stringent approach to paying for the war in Iraq.  
House Democratic leaders are considering how to proceed on several war-related spending bills. After passing a resolution condemning Bush’s troops surge with just 17 Republican votes, Democrats spent last week discussing how to challenge President Bush’s authority to manage the war.

Some rank-and-file centrist Democrats have challenged a proposal from Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee and a leading anti-war critic, that would tie funding for the war to soldiers’ readiness.
“I would suspect [the hearings] would add to anti-war pressures,” said Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), who attended the talks. “It certainly gives weight to Jack Murtha’s argument that unless there is adequate time between deployments, [Bush] is proposing a troop increase for a system that can’t handle casualties.”

Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Kentucky Democrat: McConnell's agenda driven by 'power without a purpose' MORE (D-Ky.), a freshman Democrat who defeated a GOP incumbent, said that the scandal at Walter Reed would add to anti-war pressures.

Other Democrats said the pressure will shift to the Republcans.

 “The real pressure will be on Republicans to support our troops by voting for the supplemental spending bill,” said a Democratic aide. He indicated that there would be extra money for veterans’ healthcare programs in that bill.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), attended yesterday’s hearing and said he saw “political dangers” ahead for the Bush administration.

“It’s another example of failing to take action in the face of facts staring them in the face,” he said.

The scandal adds further support for the Democrats’ position “that the administration just botched this war from the beginning, not just in Iraq but to address the needs of returning soldiers,” he added.

There was not enough room in the small auditorium at Walter Reed for the bipartisan outrage as lawmakers listened to wounded soldiers, Army officials and a Government Accountability Office investigator testify about the conditions at the Army’s premier medical facility. The panel’s subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs ran the hearing.

The fast-paced, skeptical questions from Democrats and unusually harsh criticism from GOP lawmakers indicated a sea change in Washington since last year’s mid-term elections.

“The frustration of these poor, injured veterans coming back — it is systemic. And I’m afraid this is just the tip of the iceberg. When we got out into the field, we may find more of this,” said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the senior Republican on the panel.
 “I didn’t notice any partisan divide in the hearing today. We were all on one page,” said Yarmuth, who met last week with former Miss America Heather French, the wife of Kentucky’s lieutenant governor and a veterans advocate.

Some lawmakers even praised the media for reporting on conditions at Walter Reed.

Subcommittee chairman John Tierney (D-Mass.) reminded members that he was conducted a hearing, not an inquisition. Lawmakers minded his advice until Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the U.S. Army Surgeon General, and Major General George Weightman, who was recently fired as Walter Reed’s commander, sat down at the witness table.

Several lawmakers, including Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce Lowell Braley2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster OPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward MORE (D-Iowa), asked two wounded soldiers and a wounded national guardsman’s wife whether they had any help navigating the Army’s health care system. The witnesses repeatedly said there were few people with knowledge and expertise who could help them.

“One of the concerns was that there was no advocacy,” said Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchProviding more information on the prescription drug supply chain will help lower costs for all Impeachment hearing breaks into laughter after Democrat contrasts it to Hallmark movie Diplomat ties Trump closer to Ukraine furor MORE (D-Vt.). “It’s an excellent idea and it has broad support.”

There were no memorable moments of confrontation between the lawmakers and Army officials. But without raising their voices, Democrats pounded on the Bush administration’s push to privatize services at Walter Reed.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and other Democrats blamed the Bush administration for privatizing outpatient care services at Walter Reed, which in turn led to a decline in the quality of care and a mass exodus of qualified care givers.

“A $120 million contract [led to] downsizing, and shows that there is an ideology still at work that puts profit ahead of public services,” said Welch. “That has to change.”

While Democrats called the hearing, the most animated lawmakers were those most affected by the war in Iraq, including Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and freshmen Democrats.

Shays, whose support for the war in Iraq nearly cost him his congressional seat, said, “What I wrestle with is that there’s not anyone involved in this that didn’t know there were challenges.  How can we know when a problem is being addressed? Is it something where we need to have hearings every two months?”

“I’m appalled, I’m outraged,” said Hodes, adding that he could barely contain his frustration as Army officials testified that they did not know about the squalid conditions and bureaucratic mismanagement.

Meanwhile, even Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged the problems at Walter Reed yesterday during a speech to a veterans’ group.

“There will be no excuses, only action. And the federal bureaucracy will not slow that action down. We’re going to fix the problems at Walter Reed, period,” he said.

Congress will hold more hearings this week on Walter Reed. The Senate Armed Services Committee and the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees will meet tomorrow. Murtha postponed a hearing yesterday.