Veterans talked

Obama listened

March 23, 2009|By Philip Rucker | Philip Rucker,The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -It was a diverse group of veterans that showed up last Monday morning at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Two retired generals, a blind man, three men with prosthetic legs and one in a wheelchair.

They gathered in the historic Roosevelt Room, where Teddy Roosevelt's Medal of Honor is displayed in a corner. For some, it was their first visit to the West Wing. When President Barack Obama came into the room, he shook their hands, thanked them for their service and asked each for his opinion.

"He kind of blew me away," said Randy L. Pleva Sr., president of Paralyzed Veterans of America.

They thanked Obama for proposing an 11 percent increase in the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs and expanding health care to more veterans. But the leaders of veterans service organizations warned the president that their good will would vanish if he pursued a budget proposal to bill veterans' private insurance companies for treatment of amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related injuries.

After 45 minutes, the veterans posed with Obama for photographs in the Oval Office but left with no resolution. Within hours they set a media campaign in motion. A headline on the Drudge Report said that Obama was betraying veterans. A top Senate Democrat called the proposal "dead on arrival." An American Legion spokesman railed against it in 42 interviews with conservative talk radio hosts.

On Wednesday, trying to gain control of the situation, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, summoned the veterans back to the White House. "We said, 'Look, don't give [Republicans] an opportunity to slam you,' " said one veteran, who spoke of the conversation on condition of anonymity. "I really don't think there was malicious intent there. I think it was more a matter of a bad political judgment."

In the Situation Room, with Emanuel seated in the president's chair, they reached an agreement that would take the issue off the table. Emanuel called Obama, who was on Air Force One bound for California, who signed off. The veterans hurried to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California at the Capitol, where she stood and read a statement from Obama saying that he would drop the third-party billing proposal. The veterans responded with a boisterous ovation.

The 48 hours between the Roosevelt Room meeting and Obama's reversal, described in interviews with leaders of veterans groups and White House and congressional aides, illustrate the delicate dance required of a new president trying to change government and cut costs where efficiencies can be found without alienating key constituencies.

The proposal would have authorized the VA to bill private insurance companies for the treatment of amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder and other battle wounds.

Norbert Ryan Jr., president of the Military Officers Association of America, said: "It was obvious [Obama] wanted to hear our concerns. He knew it was a hot issue with all of us. He made it clear from the very beginning that we were going to get to say what we wanted to and this was not a done deal."

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