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Dole Readying Proposals to Aid Veterans

Politics: One plan calls for increase in educational benefits, he tells Florida crowd. A second initiative would expand health coverage for the group.


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Faced with an opponent who has been proposing an avalanche of new government initiatives, Bob Dole is preparing two proposals of his own, both directed at America's 26 million veterans, officials of the Dole campaign and veterans' organizations said Monday.

Also Monday, Dole issued a statement edging away from his earlier support of President Clinton's use of missiles against Iraq. The Republican presidential nominee said that reports of new fighting in northern Iraq "raise questions about whether the administration's strategy has advanced U.S. interests in the region."

"In Iraq, as in Bosnia, the Clinton administration should be careful about making claims of success that events on the ground may not substantiate and about giving assurances that it is unable or unwilling to fulfill, because the credibility of the United States is at stake," Dole said.

One of Dole's proposals is to roughly double the educational benefits now available to veterans and exempt the benefits from taxation.

"We're going to expand on the GI Bill," Dole told a gathering of about 150 supporters here. "Education is the backbone, the centerpiece, as we look ahead in America."

Dole has not publicly mentioned the other proposal, which would expand health benefits for veterans. But officials of the American Legion, whose convention Dole addressed last week, spoke Monday about their discussions with the Dole campaign on a proposed "GI Bill of Health." The idea would be to open the 173-hospital Veterans Administration medical system to the nation's 26 million veterans.

Currently, only veterans with war-related injuries and those who are destitute are automatically eligible for free care offered by the VA medical system, according to Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the American Legion. In some cases, however, veterans with illnesses or disabilities not related to service may be eligible for special VA programs.

Expanding veterans' health benefits has been a major goal for the American Legion and other veterans' groups. Some officials of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs have lobbied for the idea as well because of fears that many VA hospitals may be forced to close as the World War II generation of veterans ages and the veteran population begins to drop substantially.

Supporters argue that opening VA hospitals to all veterans, regardless of the reason for their illness, would provide a way to use existing VA facilities efficiently. But opponents of the idea warn that it could be hugely expensive for taxpayers. The move, in effect, would make veterans the only Americans with guaranteed health care coverage.

"It's every bit as major as the original GI Bill," Budahn said of Dole's plan to expand the VA medical system. "It's a way to serve veterans and preserve the VA system."

Budahn said a similar plan was introduced in the House earlier this year by Rep. James B. Longley Jr. (R-Maine).

The GI-related bills would be Dole's first major proposals since the economic plan which calls for a 15% cut in income tax rates, that he unveiled in August.

Dole has not said how he would pay for his tax-cut plan, let alone for new spending on veterans. Responding to a question here, Dole said that to further contain medical costs, "we'd go after the providers"--hospitals, doctors and others that deliver medical services and equipment. He also decried the high cost of malpractice insurance premiums.

Earlier in the day, while campaigning in Georgia, Dole cited his intention to eliminate the Department of Education as one way to help pay for his tax proposal. But he left unclear how much actual money he would propose to save, saying that he would like to return more money, as well as more control over education, to the states and communities.

His remarks drew cheers from supporters but were criticized by the Clinton campaign.

Joe Lockhart, Clinton's campaign spokesman, seized on Dole's statement to claim that the GOP nominee "has finally come clean," revealing himself to be anti-education.

"Bob Dole made clear today that at his first Cabinet meeting no one will be there to speak for education," Lockhart said.

Dole's appearance here in the backyard of a posh waterfront home was shortened by rain, and he soon left for Baton Rouge, La., for a planned overnight stay.

Florida has become a hotly contested state, and Clinton campaigned here last week. Even though Florida in recent presidential elections has been won by Republicans, polls here are putting Clinton slightly ahead.

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