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Sen. Murray steps down from head of vets' panel

Nov. 15, 2012 - 12:28PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 15, 2012 - 12:28PM  |  
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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who stood toe to toe with the Obama administration on expanding government assistance for the caregivers of severely disabled combat veterans, will step down as chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to take on a new and bigger role in shaping the federal budget.

Murray announced Thursday she will seek the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee in the 113th Congress, filling a vacancy created by the retirement of current chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Her move, which will receive almost certain approval from her fellow Senate Democrats, provides an opportunity for Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with and receives committee assignments from Democrats, to become the new chairman of the veterans' committee.

Murray's move is no surprise. She has been part of the Senate Democratic leadership and was the Senate chairwoman of the 2011 Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that tried, unsuccessfully, to reach a bipartisan agreement on taxes and spending.

"I had to really think about stepping down from the [veterans'] committee because these issues have been such a passion for me," Murray said in an interview. "As I thought about it, I decided I could really fight for veterans just as strong on the budget committee."

Murray said she will remain a member of the veterans' committee and stay active on it. "They have not gotten rid of me," she joked.

She said she also has spoken with Sanders. "He said he had a lot to learn about veterans, and asked to sit down with me to talk about it," she said, expressing willingness to help him through his learning curve.

On the budget committee, Murray said the focus has been on cutting spending and reducing the deficit, but she'll try to make certain that programs that need money — like those taking care of service members and veterans — are not overlooked.

"Not all spending is bad," she said. "We often don't think about the long-term costs of going to war, which include taking care of veterans, and I plan to make certain that we don't forget them."

Sanders, who refers to himself as a socialist, has been among the lawmakers pushing the hardest to expand the reach of veterans' programs, especially health care. He also has strongly opposed budget-cutting initiatives to trim or cap military benefits. For example, he opposes a proposal to save money by changing how cost-of-living adjustments are calculated for Social Security, military retirement and veterans' disability benefits, because it would slightly reduce annual increases.

Sanders, who never served in the military, also has been a strong advocate for providing better help and benefits for National Guard and reserve members returning from mobilization. He has proposed a big expansion, with the federal government fully making up for any income lost during deployments because of differences between military and private-sector salaries.

While part of the Democratic leadership, Murray has not been afraid of taking on the White House. A prime example was her unhappiness with how the Obama administration was implementing a 2010 law designed to greatly improve government support for the caregivers of severely disabled veterans.

When the Veterans Affairs Department wouldn't change its plans, Murray complained directly to President Obama that proposed regulations were excluding families that Congress intended to cover. The administration ended up being more generous with the benefits.

She also fought the Obama administration over plans to try to make private insurers partly pay for VA's treatment of service-connected disabilities.

Murray, the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran who often spoke about the days when she worked in a veterans' hospital, took over the veterans' committee in 2011 when World War II veteran Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, was pushed aside to make room for her. The 88-year-old Akaka did not seek reelection, and will leave Congress at the end of the session.

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