"I think any suggestion that I don't have that commitment is just wrong," Cornyn said.
The brewing dispute between Cornyn and Noriega over veterans issues escalated amid debate over an expanded GI Bill. Congress passed the measure, and President Bush signed it last Monday, doubling college aid for recent military members and allowing their education benefits to be transferred to a spouse or children.
Noriega chastised Cornyn for not initially supporting the bill, and Noriega's supporters delivered petitions to Cornyn's Texas offices demanding that he get behind it. Cornyn later voted for a different version of the bill. He said he wanted a version that allowed the transfer of education benefits, something he said would help with retention in the all-volunteer military.
"The saying is that you recruit a service member, you recruit a soldier, but you retain a family," Cornyn said. "It's an important recognition of their contribution as well." Cornyn's father went to college on the original GI Bill after World War II.
Cornyn's first vote against the new bill didn't sit well with some in the Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose members talked about it at their state convention last week. The organization's political committee hasn't endorsed in the Senate race yet and is weighing whether to withhold support from Cornyn because of his position on the GI Bill, said Roy Grona, adjutant quartermaster for the Texas VFW.
"This one was a big one," Grona said, cautioning that he was expressing only his own views, not those of the whole organization. He wondered why Cornyn didn't vote for the GI Bill expansion right away then work later to get it into the final shape he wanted. "To me, it was just an excuse to put a 'no' vote on it because the president wasn't happy with it."
Both Cornyn and Noriega can claim at least one veterans group endorsement. Noriega has the backing of VoteVets.org, a group attempting to elect Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Cornyn was endorsed by Vets for Freedom, which describes itself as the largest Iraq and Afghanistan veterans organization in the nation.
Cornyn, a first-term senator who has far more campaign cash than Noriega, is seen as the favorite in the November election. But some polls have shown Cornyn vulnerable, with large percentages of voters undecided.
Both candidates are busy talking about high gasoline prices as a leading issue in the race, yet veterans affairs rank high in Texas, with its 15 military bases and 1.7 million veterans.
Noriega, a state legislator from Houston, is playing up his role as a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard and his 14 months spent in Afghanistan. He's urging an end to the war in Iraq and improved services for military men and women.
"Without question, until you've been in these shoes, it is just a completely different perspective," Noriega said.
Noriega said Cornyn has consistently voted against measures important to veterans, like opposing expansion of the children's health care program and opposing cancellation of a scheduled cut in Medicare payments to doctors. He accused Cornyn of a "flip-flop" approach in which he switches support to important veterans' bills only after feeling outside pressure, then sometimes taking the credit. "He's like the rooster that claims he made the sun rise."
Case in point, according to Noriega: A veterans hospital for deep South Texas.
Tens of thousands of veterans in the Rio Grande Valley have long sought a veterans hospital. They complained that they sometimes must travel five hours to a San Antonio hospital to get health care or endure long waits at a Valley clinic.
Democrats from the Valley pushed in the U.S. House for a South Texas veterans hospital.
Noriega contends Cornyn got behind the effort later. Cornyn was an original Senate sponsor. Cornyn introduced a proposal in July 2007 to allow $175 million for construction of a South Texas veterans hospital if that were recommended by the Veterans Affairs secretary, Cornyn's office said.
Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a plan to expand a Harlingen veterans clinic to provide more routine health care, though there is no separate Valley hospital planned yet. Services would also be added in McAllen and Corpus Christi.
Noriega said more health care services are still needed. He said when he worked with the Guard along the Texas-Mexico border he saw firsthand the struggles of disabled vets trying to make medical appointments months ahead of time in faraway cities.
Cornyn, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, says his Senate record includes supporting every Defense Department authorization bill that expanded the health care program for military families; voting numerous times to increase funding for veterans' health care; and voting repeatedly for armored vehicles for soldiers.
Cornyn and other senators supported a major overhaul of veterans' medical care after reports emerged of poor treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
He said he worked to strengthen housing benefits for injured soldiers and their families after learning from the mother of a Texas soldier who was shot in Iraq that parents caring for wounded service members often aren't eligible for housing assistance.
Cornyn said veterans services are a "moral obligation." He said he respects Noriega's military service, but that Noriega shouldn't suggest that his effort is lagging.
Noriega insists Cornyn has a "disingenuous manner of representation."
"It's extremely important to me," Noriega said of veterans affairs, "because I still have my tent mates who are serving their second and third deployment."
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