Rep. Bob Filner’s legendary quick temper and fierce combativeness have landed him in trouble more than once during his two decades in Congress.
Those same attributes have endeared him to a generation of veterans whose organizations have come to depend on the Californian, the ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, to serve as their tribune.
But with Filner’s planned retirement coming at the same time as Congress is looking for ways to pinch every penny, veterans’ groups are privately worried about who will champion their priorities in the 113th Congress and beyond.
Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) is the anti-Filner, with his calm demeanor and serious mien. And, unlike the liberal Filner, who champions government activism across the board, Miller is a conservative who supports his party’s vision of a smaller, less intrusive federal government.
Nobody at or near the top of a veterans organization wants to be seen saying a negative word about Miller — he leads the committee that defines federal policy for their members.
But a number said privately that they wish Miller was more aggressive in pushing for more spending and tougher rhetorically on the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Miller said his style is his style, and it isn’t likely to change.
“I would like to have at least an opportunity to meet with everybody and open the dialogue,” he said. “And I’ve offered to the [veterans service organizations] that if they have somewhere they would like to meet — visit with their memberships — that I’m willing to go and visit with them.”
Officials in some of the powerful lobbying groups refer to Filner as their “bulldog,” one of the kinder epithets that has come his way over the years but not one likely to be hurled, in a kindly way or not, at the mild-mannered Miller.
“When it’s all said and done, who’s going to be the one who’s going to literally follow through on the niceties that are said on Memorial Day and Veterans Day?” said Tim Tetz, legislative director for the American Legion. “Who’s going to be the one pressing for the votes, pressing for the issues? If we find that person, no matter what party they are from, no matter how much seniority they have, that’s the person the veterans’ community will be better off with.”
Veterans’ groups generally agree that Filner’s brash and abrasive in-your-face style of politics helped secure the significant funding increases the VA has enjoyed over the past several years. They also agree they need an advocate, such as Filner, to protect their interests as budget realities begin to catch up with programs once considered untouchable.
“Right now we’re defending the advancements that we made the last two, three, five sessions of Congress,” Tetz said.