Roe ends chairmanship with goals accomplished, save for one: More benefits for Blue Water vets

At a Capitol Hill press conference on December 20, 2018, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., is joined by fellow committee members and representatives of veteran service organizations in calling for the Senate to act on legislation providing benefits to "Blue Water" veterans.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2018

WASHINGTON – The once-bedecked office of Phil Roe, a Republican congressman from Tennessee, was empty Thursday morning except for a couch, a few chairs and some portraits leaning against one wall.

It’s the space reserved for the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs – an office and a title that he’ll be relinquishing in the new year when the House majority flips to the Democratic party.

Roe led the committee for two years, during which time he successfully garnered bipartisan support to follow through on numerous, weighty goals.

However, it appeared likely Friday that he would fall short on one: securing benefits for thousands of veterans who served on ships off the coast during the Vietnam War. Known as “Blue Water” Navy veterans, they’ve been fighting for years to prove they were exposed to Agent Orange.

The ongoing effort appeared ill-fated Friday, but not for lack of trying on Roe’s part. He shepherded legislation through the House, where it passed on a vote of 382-0. It marked the first time in a seven-year fight that the bill had made it out of one chamber.

The vote occurred in June, with Roe thinking there would be enough time for the Senate, notoriously slower, to approve it.

Six months later, with days before the end of the congressional session, the Senate made two last-ditch attempts to pass it. They failed twice.

“We acted so early,” Roe said. “We thought by getting this thing done in June, the Senate would vote on it in September. Turned out we were wrong by a few months.”

Late fight for Blue Water vets

When the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act shifted to the Senate during summer, opposition began to mount.

First, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie came out against the measure, citing high costs and insufficient evidence that Blue Water Navy veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, a cancer causing herbicide. Four former VA secretaries, Robert McDonald, Anthony Principi, James Nicholson and James Peake, backed Wilkie’s stance.

Republican senators threatened to block the bill.

As the end of the session neared, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, led negotiations. He continued to plead with senators to pass the bill in the final days before holiday break.

However, there were two holdouts: Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Both senators wanted to wait for a scientific study about Agent Orange and Blue Water Navy veterans that’s expected to be published sometime in 2019.

On Dec. 11, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., went to the Senate floor and asked for unanimous consent to pass the bill. Unanimous consent expedites approval but can be stopped if one senator objects. Enzi objected.

The same thing happened Wednesday, but Lee objected.

Roe, along with veterans organizations and other members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, held a news conference Thursday urging senators to get it passed in the final hours of the 115th Congress.

Roe held out hope that Senate leadership would schedule a floor vote Thursday or Friday, believing it would get approved with overwhelming support if given a chance. With a government shutdown looming, he conceded there might not be the necessary time or attention.

“The rules of the Senate shouldn’t get in the way of doing the right thing,” Roe said. “You’ve got a vast majority of senators who would support this. It’s really frustrating.”

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., suggested President Donald Trump could “issue a tweet” with his support for the bill and call out Enzi and Lee – something Takano thought could be enough to have the senators drop their objections. A tweet didn’t come as of Friday afternoon.

On Thursday, some supporters of the bill viewed the final efforts as futile and looked ahead to restarting the effort in 2019.

For Roe, who pushed through major VA reforms the past two years, the failure to get this one was frustrating, and a disappointment, he said.

“What you’re really asking is, ‘Did Larry Bird ever miss a free throw?’” Roe said. “We missed a free throw here.”

Looking ahead to Democratic control

Roe has taken the center seat at committee hearings since January 2017. Soon, he’ll be shifting one seat over. He’s taking the role of the committee’s ranking Republican starting Jan. 3.

“Nothing’s going to change for me except for the seat I’m sitting in,” he said. “I’m going to sit in a different chair up there, but I’m going to work just as hard on the issues.”

Democrats will take control of the House in the 116th Congress, meaning they will gain subpoena power. It’s expected the party will use their control to investigate Trump’s administration. On the veterans’ affairs committee, that could mean investigations into the influence three members of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., club, had on veterans’ policies.

Takano, who is slated to be the next committee chairman, has already listed some priorities, including to stop the deportation of veterans and establish more effective citizenship procedures for immigrant servicemembers. He also wants to fill the tens of thousands of vacancies across the VA and stop for-profit colleges from targeting and cheating veterans.

On Roe’s list is to initiate a deep look into how money is being spent on veteran homelessness and suicide prevention, and how those efforts could improve.

The committee will also be responsible for overseeing implementation of the VA reforms that it passed during the 115th Congress.

When Roe began as chairman, he wanted to expand veterans’ options for health care into the private sector, modernize the process veterans use to appeal disability claims and take inventory of VA facilities to determine what could be divested and where the agency should invest. He also wanted to improve VA technology and give the VA more authority to discipline poor-performing employees.

The House and Senate passed legislation that addressed all those issues. Now, the VA is trying to put them into effect.

“This is the hard work we’re going to do,” Roe said. “It is incredibly important how the rules are written, how it’s rolled out and how it’s administered. That’s what matters to the veterans out there. It’s great when the president hands you a pen, but after that is where the rubber hits the road.”

Despite the split control of Congress, Roe said he’s hopeful Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees will continue to work together amicably and not “play politics.”

“If you’ll notice, we brought up clean bills,” Roe said. “It wasn’t, ‘OK, let’s take this veterans bill everyone wants to vote for and put this bunch of crap on it’ – pardon my French – ‘and then you’ll have to vote because now you’re voting against veterans.’ We didn’t do any of that.”

Roe added: “I hope and think that will happen with the Democrats. I hope they’ll work in the same way – focus on veterans, keep it clean and keep it separate.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

In a January, 2017 file photo, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., plays a tune on a guitar he keeps on hand in his office on Capitol Hill.

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