Clinton's comments spark VA talk on campaign trail

Republican lawmakers are hoping to use Hillary Clinton's latest comments on problems in the Veterans Affairs Department to widen conversation on the campaign trail about recent missteps in providing care and benefits to former service members.

In an Oct. 23 TV interview, the Democratic presidential frontrunner said the issue of problems within VA "have not been as widespread as it has been made out to be," and blamed Republicans for politicizing the agency's failings.

"They try to create a downward spiral ...'Don't fund it to the extent that it needs to be funded, because we want it to fail so then we can argue for privatization,' " Clinton said on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show."

"They still want to privatize Medicare. They still want to do away with Social Security. And these are fights we've been having for 70, 80 years now," she said.

Her campaign walked back those comments a few days later, saying that significant changes are, in fact, needed within VA.

But Republicans seized on the comments as proof that Clinton is out of touch on the issues and insensitive to the challenges veterans face.

"In her blind ambition, she has injected partisanship into VA issues, and that is disgraceful," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a conference call organized by the Republican National Committee after Clinton's interview.

"It's offensive not just to veterans, but to all Americans," McCain said.

In separate events, Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Lindsey Graham also criticized the comments as misinformed and misguided. Officials with Concerned Veterans for America, which boasts ties to a number of Republican causes, blasted Clinton for standing in the way of real reform within VA.

The episode has created the first real veterans discussion of the 2016 presidential campaign, which thus far has focused more on personal finance and personalities than defense and after-war issues.

Clinton's main opponent in the Democratic primary, independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has faced some criticism from veterans groups for being too lenient on VA's shortcomings, especially during his stint overseeing the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

And Republican candidates largely have panned current VA and administration reform efforts. Ben Carson has suggested abolishing the department, while Bush has suggested extensive reform efforts but ensuring VA operations continue.

Clinton's comments just a few weeks before Veterans Day have thrust the department's recent scandals into the middle of campaign soundbites.

Over the past two years, VA officials have had to answer for a series of problems surrounding patient wait times, poor record keeping and executive mismanagement on a host of different programs.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., told reporters he's happy to see those topics getting more attention, even if he vehemently disagrees with Clinton's characterizations.

"I think it's critical that this be elevated as an issue," he said. "The American people want to hear it discussed, and they want to hear solutions. We need to hear where this department needs to go, not deny the problems."

Clinton has promised to unveil a full VA reform plan next month. Outside veterans groups have pressed all the presidential candidates to do the same, noting that most of the major party hopefuls do not have veterans policy sections on their campaign sites.

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