WASHINGTON – David Gorman of the Disabled American Veterans (search) says Democrats "right now are the only audience we have" that is receptive to calls for additional federal money for more than 26 million men and women who served in the military.
There's nobody on the other side who will do anything about it," he says dismissively of the congressional Republicans who hold power.
Election-year wartime exaggeration or not, it is a welcome assessment to the Democratic leaders in Congress, Sen. Tom Daschle (search) of South Dakota and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (search) of California. They began courting veterans' votes long before decorated Vietnam War veteran John Kerry (search) emerged as their party's presidential nominee.
Executive director Gorman commented after a two-day period in which Pelosi and Daschle forced votes on two proposals backed by veterans' groups: a short-term infusion of funds and costlier restructuring of the financing for health benefits.
Republicans rejected both. It was an outcome that Democrats expected and hope to turn to their advantage.
"Providing for our veterans should not be a partisan issue, but sadly there are real differences between the parties at this time," Pelosi said later.
Daschle said his proposal would remove funding for health care from Congress' annual budgetary wrangling.
"We have done it for military retirees. We have done it for Social Security recipients. We have done it for Medicare. We ought to do it for veterans," he said.
Republicans dismiss claims that Democrats are making inroads with veterans. GOP lawmakers say that by the next budget year, they will have increased spending on Veterans Affairs programs to more than $71 billion a year — a 50 percent increase since Bush took office.
They also point to enactment of a 10-year, $22 billion plan to improve pension benefits for more than 250,000 disabled men and women who once were in the armed forces. That long was a priority for veterans groups.
Separate legislation nearing passage would increase benefits for many surviving military retiree spouses, age 62 and older, at a cost of $4 billion over the next few years.
Rank-and-file Republicans say "veterans at home are happier than they've been in a long time, that finally the accumulation of the positive things we've done for military retirees and veterans is getting through," said Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt (search), the House GOP whip.
At the same time, he acknowledged, "There's always going to be a group of people whose job is to ask for more" for veterans.
It is a description that fits Gorman and leaders of other veterans' service organizations. That, in turn, creates an opportunity for Democrats when the nation has significant numbers of troops — veterans-to-be — in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kerry has made veterans a constant companion in his campaign for the White House. It is a less visible, but recurrent theme for the party's congressional leaders.
Daschle, who served in the Air Force, long has stressed veterans issues in South Dakota.
Now, in the midst of a heavily contested race for re-election, no detail is too small. His campaign Web site claims partial credit for securing an additional counselor for a veterans center in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Pelosi, unlike Daschle and Kerry, voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq in 2002. Still, she began reaching out to veterans groups after becoming party leader a few months later.
The impetus, says Missouri Rep. Ike Skeleton, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was "the realization that the young men and young women coming back from Iraq" would need the government's assistance after their service.
The potential for political payoff is hard to gauge because recent major election-day surveys have not gathered information from voters based on service status. Conventional wisdom among Democratic pollsters is that veterans favor Republicans.
Celinda Lake, a pollster who has done work for Pelosi, said that "standing up for veterans really is a very, very strong message among voters 65 and older," already a well-courted portion of the electorate.
In addition, she said it is important "among voters in rural areas, where there is a disproportionate" number of former servicemen and women. House Democrats are paying particularly close attention this year to rural districts as they struggle to end a decade in the minority.
Democrats generally have adopted a two-pronged strategy: take credit for much of the veterans-connected legislation that passes, while arguing it did not go far enough.
They began a legislative petition in the House last year that helped make the pension improvement issue too hot for the GOP leadership to ignore.
They also claim credit for forcing Bush to abandon proposals to raise co-payments for veterans using the VA health care system, and their own budget proposals call for higher spending on veterans programs.
In the Senate, Daschle's plan was estimated to cost $150 billion over five years. It failed on a nearly partyline vote of 49-48, 11 shy of the 60 needed.
Democratic efforts have also been aided by GOP infighting.
Republican Chris Smith of New Jersey, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, signed a letter in February saying the planned Republican budget fell $2.54 billion short of what was needed to maintain the current benefits and services.
Republicans added $1.2 billion for veterans programs, but Smith cast a dissenting vote nonetheless. That further angered House Republican leaders, some of whom briefly floated the idea of stripping him of his chairmanship.
"I think we have delivered," Smith now says of fellow Republicans. "It's all in the details. It's not in the rhetoric."