Sat, Oct 09 2010 12:00 PM Posted By: Nicole Clifford, California News Service
Chula Vista Democratic Congressman Bob Filner is at slight risk of losing his seat this November, but party losses elsewhere threaten his standing as chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
If Republicans pick up the 39 seats needed to win a majority in the House of Representatives, Filner would be stripped of the post from which he oversees the government's $88 billion veterans affairs program.
The eight-term congressman is one of five California committee chairs who would lose their posts, in addition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, the first speaker from California.
Filner has chaired the Veterans Affairs Committee since 2007 when Democrats took control of the House. Under his watch, more than 500,000 vets have been added to the Veteran Administration's compensation programs.
"I have a clear agenda," Filner said in an interview. "I will focus on jobs and access," noting that the unemployment rate among veterans is 30 percent - more than triple the national rate -and that vets in rural areas often have difficulty reaching medical centers.
Filner, a former deputy mayor for the city of San Diego, was first elected to the House in 1992. He has won every election since by wide margins.
Filner has established himself as a solid Democratic voice, voting with his party more than 96 percent of the time. He was one of the original founders of the House Progressive Caucus.
Republican candidate Nick Popaditch, a retired U.S. Marine, is challenging Filner for the 51st District seat this fall.
The Veterans Affairs Committee is one of dozens that would change hands with substantial policy consequences if Republicans take control of the House.
Five California Republicans, mostly from Southern California, are in line to chair committees, including Darrell Issa, R-Temecula, who is expected to take over the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Other Republicans expected to take over committees include Reps. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Armed Services), David Dreier (Rules), Dan Lungren (Administration) and Jerry Lewis (Appropriations.)
Veterans' issues are a high priority for the district's residents, many of whom are military families or have a connection to Camp Pendleton and naval installations in San Diego.
Filner said expansion of access to VA benefits, particularly to women and the elderly, remains a top priority. He pledged to "institutionally and psychologically" change the VA to be more accommodating to women.
He also vowed to eliminate homelessness among veterans within five years.
He expressed concern that Republicans are too focused on "cutting down the scope of the VA" and providing care to only the most severely injured vets.
"Democrats want to take care of everyone" no matter how injured they are, Filner said.
In March, he introduced a bill pressuring Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to provide wartime disability compensation for veterans with Parkinson's disease after he heard from constituents that it was severely affecting Vietnam vets.
"By talking to veterans in my community, we were able to change it at the national level," Filner said.
The top Republican priority if they win control is to reform the VA's purchasing and contracting practices, long criticized for being inefficient, according to Brian Lawrence, a Republican committee staff member.
Lawrence said Republicans would work to decrease the backlog of vets' claims, maintain high-quality health care, and implement new technology to streamline the electronic filings.
He added that many shortcomings in veterans' programs have little to do with whatever party controls Congress.
"The Veterans Affairs Committee is not the place to score political points," he said.
Filner agreed that many items before the committee have no partisan divide, noting that providing top quality health care to vets and more accountability in the system were issues that both parties agreed on.
Two senior Republicans from Florida - Reps. Cliff Stearns and Jeff Miller-are the most likely Republicans to succeed Filner if their party wins, Lawrence said.
Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Indiana, the committee's top ranking Republican, is not seeking re-election.
The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California's Washington Center and UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
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