Lawmakers in the newly formed Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Caucus hope the coalition can speed reforms for the Veterans Affairs Department by brokering a deal for their respective parties.

"I think this is the perfect caucus to do that kind of work," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a co-founder of the new group. "We want to move legislation that benefits our veterans. We think a lot of the issues are urgent … and I think there is a ton of common ground."

Founders of the caucus, launched this week, also include the co-chairs of the Congressional Veterans' Job Caucus (Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.) and Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, one of the few Iraq veterans to have served in the chamber.

The group unveiled plans to be a legislative force on VA and military issues at a media event with officials from Student Veterans of America and business leaders from Uber and Starbucks, which recently announced new efforts to hire thousands of veterans and military spouses in coming years.

Kirk said employment will be a main focus of the caucus, explaining that "the best way we can take care of our veterans is by giving them a job."

But the senators also vowed to be voices of change and compromise on a host of hot-button topics: military sexual assault, mental health treatment, Pentagon personnel reform and VA accountability.

The last one has been stalled in the chamber after a party-line vote in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on a new reform package that would make it easier to fire VA employees.

Without offering specifics on that bill, the caucus founders said they'll work to bring the two sides together, and believe most of their colleagues want to keep veterans and military issues from becoming partisan fights.

"What we want to do is focus on the veteran, maybe not what's best for the VA or for providers, but what is right for that veteran," Ernst said. "Maybe it makes sense to go to a VA specialist, maybe sometimes it makes sense to go to a private provider.

"We have that common interest in doing what's right for them."

House members launched their own Post-9/11 Veterans Caucus in March. Veterans groups praised both moves as a way to elevate their concerns in a Congress with many competing issues and interests.

Thirty-two members of the House and Senate served in the military in the post-Sept. 11 era, with 26 of them having deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Seventeen members of Congress still serve in the National Guard or reserves, including Ernst, an Iowa National Guard lieutenant colonel.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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