President Clinton moved to outflank his GOP rivals Monday on veterans' issues, decrying Republican plans to trim health spending for veterans and announcing creation of an advisory panel on the mysterious Persian Gulf War syndrome.
Reaching out to a pivotal constituency, Clinton told a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that the House Appropriations Committee's vote to cut $200 million for veterans' health care was "unwise and unnecessary."
"Some in Congress see that the need to improve your health care services is not very important," he said.
Clinton said that he plans to convene a panel of scientists, physicians, veterans and other citizens to examine the cases of tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans who suffer from unexplained illnesses. "We know their problems are real and cannot be ignored while we wait for science to provide all the answers."
Government researchers who have studied the cases so far have found no single cause for the complaints. Instead, they have traced the symptoms in most cases to one or several routine illnesses.
But some veterans, unsatisfied and fearing that their families may become ill, have urged Clinton to set up a research panel outside government. Clinton said that the group will begin to survey 30,000 veterans and active duty personnel and promised: "We will leave no stone unturned. . . . We will not stop until we have done everything we possibly can."
Scalded by the controversy surrounding his Vietnam War draft record, Clinton has given veterans special access and attention, and to a large extent has heeded their requests for increased federal spending.
Clinton's progress in wooing them was evident Monday. VFW members responded to his speech with a standing ovation as it began and when it ended.
Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion, said that many veterans disapprove of Clinton's policies on missing servicemen in Vietnam and prisoners of that war, as well as his policy on homosexuals in the armed service. But he said that many veterans give Clinton high marks in other areas.
Asserting that Clinton had gone a long way toward keeping his 1992 campaign promises, Robertson said that the President "has the utmost respect from America's veterans."
One U.S. official said that some veterans' groups have criticized Clinton for not taking a sufficient personal interest in Gulf War syndrome. The naming of the panel, he said, is in response to that.
In his speech, Clinton said that, while his Administration cut the budget of virtually every federal agency, "we will go to the mat for things that matter: Head Start for our kids, school lunches, job training, 100,000 new police on the streets, military readiness and better care for veterans."
"Our Administration has brought the voices of veterans to the highest councils of government, protected your interests when they've been threatened and worked hard every day to improve the services you receive," he said.
Veterans' groups were upset last week by the House panel's move to cut about $200 million in the current federal budget. The reduction would eliminate six outpatient health clinics for veterans, as well as money for new medical equipment.
Clinton boasted of his proposal to increase Department of Veterans' Affairs spending by $1.3 billion over the next five years, which he said would provide care for 43,000 more vets, as well as two new hospitals and three new nursing homes.
Robertson, of the American Legion, said that increases in spending for health care have allowed the department to offer "among the best health care in America." But he said veterans have wanted more, since the spending growth has been slower than the rate of private health care spending and has forced deferral of spending for maintenance and equipment.
Clinton also used his speech to call for a continued assertive U.S. role abroad, saying that the nation needs to support the United Nations, international peacekeeping efforts and fragile democracies.
Times staff writer Art Pine contributed to this story.