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McCain to Democrats: Do You 'Give a Damn' About Servicemembers?

McCain gave a biting floor speech about the blockade of the defense spending bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Republican defense policy leader in the Senate wondered aloud Thursday if Democrats "don't give a damn" about military personnel.  

During a stem-winding floor speech, Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., asked if his Democratic counterparts were blocking the defense spending bill debate not for procedural reasons — but because they don't care. "It's foolish, it's cynical and dangerous to hold defense legislation hostage until every one of their political demands is met," McCain said. "Veterans Day is one week away. I urge my Democratic colleagues: Stop treating our national defense as a tool for extracting political leverage."  

McCain said his colleagues will all honor the men and women who have previously served the country next week, but he asked what they will tell those currently in the military.  

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"What have you got to say about the men and women who are now serving?" McCain said. "What you just did is you voted not to fund, train, equip and defend these men and women, and without this, their lives are in greater danger. So, don't go back and say that you're doing everything you can to defend this nation. You are not."  

The McCain speech is just one example of the Republican offensive on military and veterans issues ahead of Veterans Day on Nov. 11. Shortly after 44 Senate Democratic caucus members voted to block taking up the defense appropriations bill Thursday, Republican senators and their associated campaign operations were lobbing criticism at Democrats, including the most vulnerable Democrat in 2016, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.  

"Despite the escalation of conflicts around the world, Michael Bennet is holding hostage critical resources for our troops and defense," the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in an email blast. "If only Michael Bennet was as enthusiastic to protect our troops and their families as he was President Obama's negotiations with the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism."  

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, one of the Republicans in a hotly contested re-election battle, was among the senators quick to criticize Democrats for maintaining the blockade of the broader Pentagon spending bill.  

"With our service members in harm's way and the threats to our country growing, Senate Democrats today prevented Congress from fulfilling its obligation to our troops and to the American people in a short-sighted and disappointing effort to gain partisan advantage in a Washington game that is completely disconnected from the serious threats we face as a country," the New Hampshire Republican said in a statement.  

Later Thursday, Senate Democrats agreed to take up the fiscal 2016 Military Construction-VA spending bill, saying it would address one of their priorities as the appropriations process moves forward. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters he believed the Military Construction-VA bill could be the foundation for a catch-all spending bill.  

"I hope it leads to a comprehensive funding bill that would get signed into law," the Nevada Democrat said.  

Democrats were concerned Republicans would advance the defense spending bill by itself, without the other 11 spending measures being taken care of — a repeat of the scenario that played out some five years ago.  

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, floated a different explanation.  

"I think what happened is the Democrats started to worry about filibustering the defense appropriation bill for the third time," Cornyn said. "So, they began to worry what they're going to tell their military — active-duty military and veterans — when they go back home on Wednesday, when they're talking about how much they care about veterans and about our military. So, I think they had second thoughts."  

Cornyn told CQ Roll Call the Senate could adjourn for the week Tuesday if an assortment of legislative business gets done first, providing an incentive for senators to work toward consent agreements. That means the military construction measure could be completed in the Senate before Veterans Day.  

Separately, the Republican National Committee unveiled a new effort Thursday to register veterans, get them to the polls and recruit them as GOP volunteers.  

"GOPVets will provide America’s veterans a greater voice in politics," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "We're committed to fighting for our veterans to ensure we can raise the visibility of issues that are important to our vets in the political discussion. More than 6.5 million veterans didn’t vote in the last presidential election, we're looking to change that."  

But not all efforts leading up to the holiday were political. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter highlighting the efforts of the Veterans' Affairs Committee since he became chairman at the beginning of the 114th Congress.  

"Although I believe this represents true progress, this should be viewed as a mere down-payment on what we owe the men and women who have bravely and selflessly served in the military," he said. "There is much more that must be done to bring true accountability at VA and to transform it into an organization worthy of those it serves."  

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