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Senators Form Unlikely Alliance on Veterans' Education

Brown is working with his GOP colleague from North Carolina on a trio of veterans issues. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When it comes to veterans issues, a seemingly unlikely partnership is emerging in the Senate between Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown and freshman Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina.  

Tillis and Brown have already introduced a trio of bills related to education and vocational training for veterans, including those fresh out of the armed forces. The most recent measure, filed last week, would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to put together an action plan to improve rehabilitation services so disabled veterans can receive enhanced job training. Brown said he often develops proposals of this nature after holding a town hall meeting or other communication with his Ohio constituents. Then, given the Senate's rules making it difficult to advance legislation regardless of whether the author is in the majority or not, he seeks a partner in the GOP.  

"That's how we get stuff done," Brown said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. "Sometimes it's legislative, other times it's ... working directly with the secretary of the VA or other people, other administration people, [to] figure out how to do it."  

The alliance between Brown and Tillis might appear unusual — Brown, in the middle of his second term, is a staunch liberal, and Tillis has a decidedly conservative slant — but alliances such as this new one are necessary to get legislation through the Senate's procedural hoops.  

One of the issues often cited by current and former members is that lawmakers of different parties no longer have the same opportunity to get to know each other as they did when more of them lived in Washington. But Brown and Tillis have the advantage of both serving on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and the Democrat said he quickly identified his Tar Heel State colleague as a potential ally.  

"I sit straight across from him in [the] veterans committee. I listen to his comments. I see that we look at a number of the veterans issues the same way, and I'm very aware of the military presence in North Carolina, which suggests huge numbers of veterans in his state," Brown said. "I've made a big part of my agenda in Congress, in the Senate, to look out for veterans, and I'm always looking for allies."  

North Carolina has a large military presence and an increasing population of veterans, explained Tillis, a former state speaker elected to the Senate in 2014. That makes it an even greater priority for him, while also providing an opening to work with the other party.  

Tillis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Tillis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

"In many respects, I'm doing what I did when I was in the legislature," Tillis said in a separate interview last week. "I served four years in the minority and then four years as speaker, and I did the same things back then when I was a freshman — try and find the things that I thought that we could work on."  

It's been nearly a year since Tillis won a bruising challenge to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, picking up a seat for Republicans as the party netted a total of nine and won the majority for the first time since 2006. He's now joining a legislative alliance with Brown, who also represents a swing state and was re-elected in 2012, on an issue that tends to offer more opportunities for bipartisan common ground.  

The other two bills filed by the senators would alter the Fry scholarship to allow funding for education benefits for the children of service members killed in the line of duty while serving in active duty, and prioritize enrollment for veterans in college programs so they can use GI benefits before expiration.  

"The tie always goes to the veteran," Tillis said of the bill's aim.  

Brown and Tillis said they would use whatever legislative avenue becomes available to advance their priorities — hopefully through unanimous consent, if not as part of a larger vehicle.  

Congress can't seem to shake its reputation for dysfunction and hasn't reached 25 percent approval in Gallup polling in nearly six years. But senators, particularly those from battleground states where bipartisanship is generally good politics, will undoubtedly continue to look for areas of agreement.  

"In the Republican conference, we have a lot of opportunities to spend time with one another and get to know each other, and so it was important to me to start reaching out to people that ideologically we might not have a whole lot of things in common," Tillis said. "There are certain areas where ... we can check our ideological differences at the door and work on things."  

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