Smith Spars With Leaders

Veterans Chairman Upsets Fellow Republicans on Funding Issues

Posted March 25, 2003 at 7:06pm

After months of railing against his own leadership, House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has earned public rebukes from the chamber’s top Republicans and private warnings that he needs to do a better job toeing the GOP line.

Despite previous admonishments to temper his rhetoric, Smith has pushed hard for more funding for veterans this year, in the process criticizing both the House Republican budget resolution and the White House’s spending proposals.

Earlier this month, Smith’s complaints about veterans funding at a Republican Conference meeting so angered Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that he rose to deliver the New Jersey lawmaker a highly unusual tongue-lashing.

“Hastert got up and just shut him down,” said a Republican source who witnessed the exchange. “That was off the charts. I’ve never seen anything like that. … It was scathing.”

The Speaker chastised Smith again at a Conference meeting last week, and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has also indirectly criticized the Veterans’ Affairs chairman, whose office declined requests for comment for this story.

Their unhappiness at Smith’s behavior actually predates this year’s budget fight.

Last fall, Smith helped scuttle a carefully crafted compromise bankruptcy bill over a controversial abortion-related provision. The move infuriated Republican leaders and their allies on K Street, who were strongly supporting the legislation.

During the Steering Committee process in January, GOP leaders told Smith that as a panel chairman, he needed to fall in line. The criticism was unusual, since the Steering process for sitting chairmen is normally just a simple formality.

“The leadership had a very direct conversation with Smith … and told him he’d better be more of a team player and he has failed to exhibit that,” said a senior Republican leadership aide.

Another source close to the process described the leadership’s message as, “You’re on thin ice.”

Smith was highly critical of the Bush administration’s veterans funding when it was released in February. “A few of these proposals simply won’t fly,” Smith said at the time.

He later shifted his sights to the resolution passed by the House Budget Committee, encouraging other Republicans not to support the bill unless veterans programs were bolstered. Smith’s actions were instrumental to Republican leaders’ late-night decision to add more veterans money just before final passage last Friday.

Veterans spending is a sensitive issue for many lawmakers, both because it carries a special emotional resonance for Members and because it can be politically treacherous. During a re-election campaign, charges that a Member or a party has been short-changing veterans can be devastating.

Fear of being tarred with that label prompted many lawmakers to join Smith in his push for increased funding. And this is not the first time that Smith has been victorious in lobbying for more money.

“He has had major successes on veterans programs in the last three years,” said Bob Norton, deputy director for government relations at the Military Officers Association of America. “He has somehow come up with a marketing program and a strategy to get his stuff.”

While Republican operatives acknowledged that Smith’s efforts had been effective, his tactics last week certainly did not win him any friends in leadership.

“He scared the heck out of our Members, but that’s not what being a team player is about,” said a senior GOP leadership staffer.

Though there were several House Republicans who complained publicly about the budget — 12 voted against it — only one of the other dissenters was a committee chairman, ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.). As one Republican staffer put it, the leadership wants Smith to remember that a chairmanship is “a privilege, not a right.”

For their part, veterans groups have hailed Smith as a heroic supporter of their cause.

On Wednesday, three prominent groups — the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans — released a statement lauding Members who supported increased veterans spending. The groups reserved their highest praise for Smith.

“When the chips are down, that’s when you get to know who you’re true friends are,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander in Chief Ray Sisk. “There is no doubt Chairman Smith is a friend of America’s veterans.”

Such kind words may be gratifying to Smith, but they could further annoy House leaders who have already complained that the chairman sometimes coordinates too closely with outside groups in their efforts to pressure his fellow Republican Members.

A former member of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee, Smith is perhaps best known for his impassioned fights against abortion and his high-profile standoffs with the Clinton administration about the issue. Smith has also made a name for himself crusading for international human rights and against granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China.

Before winning the Veterans’ Affairs gavel in 2001, Smith had been in the running for the International Relations Committee chairmanship, a post eventually won instead by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

Whatever criticism he has received from the leadership since winning his current gavel, veterans groups believe he has done his job the right way.

“That’s why he’s the leader of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He’s supposed to look after the nation’s veterans,” said Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion. “We understand that there are things that you have to step out and take the lead on. If politicians are going into office to protect their skins and not their constituencies, maybe they need to do a gut check.”