Common ground: Political competitors work for VA

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Independent commissions that are formed to make recommendations on the closure of government facilities are supposed to take politics out of the process.

Often, it has the opposite effect.

That's certainly the case in Eastern Washington. But not in the usual way. The recommendation by the CARES commission to close the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Walla Walla has brought political rivals together as allies. Yet, they are in the midst of what has already become a contentious campaign.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and her challenger for the Senate seat, U.S. Rep.

George Nethercutt, have taken the lead in the effort to save Wainwright from closure.

Democrat Murray and Republican Nethercutt are looking out for the interests of the Pacific Northwest and their constituents (read voters).

And the fact that Murray and Nethercutt are competing for the attention of voters makes it a partisan matter, albeit a somewhat complicated one. Murray and Nethercutt must support each other, while trying to keep the spotlight trained on themselves.

Let's be clear, Murray and Nethercutt are committed to saving the local VA facility beyond politics.

They sincerely believe it is the right thing to do. The cooperation between Murray, Nethercutt and Sen.

Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and their staffs has been amazing considering their partisan differences.

But the bottom line is Murray and Nethercutt sure would like to be the one who saves _ or, at least, is credited with saving _ the local VA hospital.

So, will this political balancing act help or hurt the cause? Will the voters be pawns in this election year battle between Murray and Nethercutt?Early indications are no.

Nethercutt and Murray have not undercut each other's efforts publicly.

And, perhaps more importantly, both are taking a no-holds-barred approach to scuttling the VA's closure plans.

``For veterans whose health care is at stake, the fact that this decision (about the fate of the Walla Walla VA hospital) comes to a head during an election year may be a blessing,'' the Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper noted in a recent editorial. ``If Nethercutt and Murray want to demonstrate how dedicated they are to Eastern Washington veterans, and how effective they are as elected representatives, they couldn't ask for a better opportunity.''Last week, Nethercutt hosted an hour-long meeting at the Wainwright hospital in which he had in tow Dr.

Jonathan Perlin, the acting Veterans Affairs undersecretary for health.

Nethercutt used the meeting to make it clear he ``didn't like the report (by the CARES commission) and didn't like the recommendations.''Nevertheless, the opponents of downsizing the hospital didn't walk away from the session feeling confident. Instead, many in the standing-room-only crowd were skeptical, particularly of Perlin's claims that care was not going to be cut for veterans if the hospital was closed.

Nethercutt didn't hurt himself. Then again, he didn't help himself much, either.

But Murray gave her campaign a tremendous boost Monday when she chaired a U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee field hearing at Walla Walla Community College.

Murray used the forum to make it crystal clear she is going to use her position in the Senate to save it.

``I'm as frustrated as all of you, and that's why I've brought this official U.S. Senate hearing to Walla Walla. I know there have been forums and listening sessions here before, but today's hearing is different,'' she said, adding that it will be used to build an ``official record'' that will be used by ``decision makers'' in Washington. Or, in other words, this meeting is the one that counts.

Murray also showed off her political muscle. She told the large crowd she will be either the chairwoman or the ranking minority member of the Veterans Affairs Committee next year (assuming _ wink, wink _ voters re-elect her).

``I won't forget how the veterans here were treated,'' she said to loud applause.

Murray then opened the hearing and grilled the first witness who, ironically, is named Burger. Murray peppered Dr. Leslie M. Burger, director of the Veterans Health Administration's regional network, with questions about the legality of closing Wainwright and what the VA's plans are for providing long-term and mental-health care to Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon veterans.

In attempting to answer, Burger produced more waffles than Clarette's Restaurant on a busy Sunday morning. Finally, Murray got Burger to concede the VA had no firm plans nor had it sought federal funding for long-term or mental-health care.

Burger said plans would be formulated after it was decided that Wainwright would close.

Murray, described by Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly as ``a bulldog on this day,'' barked back that the VA was making ``a promise that may never be fulfilled.'' Nethercutt, who had staff at the hearing, is not going to let Murray's strong showing go unanswered. But Nethercutt won't be going after Murray, he'll be going after VA officials looking to close Wainwright.

This political competition is a plus in the effort to keep the VA Medical Center functioning as a full-service hospital.

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