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Veterans Jobs Bill Hung Up on Filibuster

A bill directing the executive branch to set up a new $1 billion jobs training program for veterans has become mired in politics this week – for the moment.

The Veterans Job Corps Act (S. 3457), if passed, would result in a series of federal grants, totaling $1 billion, to create jobs specifically for armed services veterans. Among other provisions, The Veterans Job Corps Act seeks to encourage or facilitate the hiring of veterans in police and fire jobs, in parks and recreation services and maintenance, and to create a program to maintain veterans’ cemeteries which would be staffed by veterans. The law resembles a scaled-down version of the Civilian Conservation Corps established during the Great Depression to put people to work, though it is narrowly focused on veterans, who have been having trouble integrating back into the workplace. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there is still a 10.9 percent unemployment rate among post 9/11 veterans trying to integrate into the workplace.

The demand for labor seems to be there: The National Park Service has indicated that it has a backlog of maintenance projects totaling about $11 billion. Workers in the Veterans Job Corps would be busy for a while just doing these deferred maintenance projects.

The bill has thus far received strong bipartisan support in Congress. Indeed, the Senate vote to initiate debate on the bill was 95-1. President Obama has indicated that he will sign it, if Congress sends it to his desk.

Bill Nelson, a Democrat Senator from Florida, is the primary sponsor of the bill.

The lone dissent was Senator Rand Paul, a Republican representing the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Paul doubled down on his dissenting vote by launching a filibuster – a Senate procedural maneuver in which a Senator, or group of Senators, can delay an up-or-down vote on a bill indefinitely by extending the debate. Even though the Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, that body’s rules require 60 votes to end a filibuster – and neither party has the votes to end the filibuster by themselves. But this particular bill has strong support on both sides of the aisle.

At issue: A Pakistani physician by the name of Shakil Afridi. Afridi was a key informant in the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin. But his identity was compromised, and he is now in a Pakistani prison, where he is serving a 33 year sentence for treason - not, formally, because of his work with the CIA, but because of his connections to another radical Islamist group called Lakshar-e-Islam.

Senator Paul filibustered the bill, in an attempt to get Congress to add an amendment calling for a cut-off in federal aid to Pakistan unless Dr. Afridi is released.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized the filibuster, saying “My friend from Kentucky should have run for Secretary of State, rather than for Senate.” For his part, Rand says his filibuster was only 15 minutes long.

After Senator Paul’s filibuster, the Senate did pass a cloture vote 84-8, clearing the way for an up or down vote on the law. Rand then asked for consent to add an amendment to the law cutting off foreign aid to the governments of Egypt and Libya, in the wake of the mob attacks on the two embassies that left one U.S. ambassador and three other staffers in Libya dead. Reid objected.

And that’s where the bill is now. It will likely pass the Senate:  the Powers that Be are just haggling over the details.

It will likely run into more trouble in the House, though. The House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans, who have voiced objections to the bill. Thus far, the rhetorical opposition has come largely from Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma. Coburn has criticized the bill because the jobs it would provide are temporary at best.

“We already have six veterans’ job programs,” said Coburn, according to reporting from the Army Times. “Not one of them has a metric on it to see if it is working. There has not been one hearing to see what the jobs program that we are running now are doing.”

Coburn also objects to the fact that older veterans – the majority of the unemployed veterans, in fact – are excluded from the law’s benefits.

“Is this about veterans or is this about politicians?” Coburn said. “I suspect it is about politicians. I suspect it is about elections, not veterans.”

Watch the gamesmanship: This is not about veterans or jobs at this point. Both parties are jockeying for campaign season rhetoric. Reid would like to blame Senator Paul – and, by extension, the Republicans – for holding American veterans hostage. The Republicans, for their part, would like to paint Reid – and by extension, the Democrats, for being soft on Islamist radicals and failing to hold despotic middle eastern regimes accountable.

Neither is technically true (though the jury is still out at this point on how Congress will react to the embassy attacks across the Middle East this week). After all, Reid cannot blame a Republican filibuster when they already have a cloture vote – and Reid as majority leader can bring the bill to a final vote any time he likes. But there is enough of a germ of truth in both positions to feed both memes on the Sunday talk shows. Case in point: Politico fell for the ploy. They ran the story blaming Paul’s filibuster for stalling the bill.

But there will be another layer of political gamesmanship if the bill passes the Senate and goes to the House. Democrats will attempt to paint Republicans as selling out veterans. Whether you agree with Coburn’s reasoning or not, Republicans will have a public relations problem on their hands if the bill reaches a floor vote prior to the November elections. Republicans, for their part, will attempt to prevent that from happening.

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