Edwards speaks out on veterans’ health, contractor cuts

In a speech at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., pledged that if elected in November, he and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would improve veterans' health care, strengthen homeland security and relieve strains on the military.

Edwards, selected as Kerry's running mate early last month, said voters need look no further than the Democratic presidential nominee's decision to captain a swift boat in Vietnam for evidence of his dedication to public service. "When a man volunteers to serve his country, and puts his life on the line for others -- that's a man who represents real American values," Edwards said.

Kerry's military experience also makes him especially attuned to the needs of service members and veterans, Edwards asserted. These citizens "deserve a president who understands on the most personal level what they have gone through -- what they have given and what they have given up for their country," he said.

"To us, the real test of patriotism is how we treat the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to defend our values," Edwards said. "And let me tell you, the 26 million veterans in this country won't have to wonder if they'll have health care next week or next year -- they will have it always because they took care of us and we will take care of them."

This pledge struck a chord with John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. About 40 percent of AFGE members are veterans. "We don't like what's going on with the VA budget . . . I think he made good reference to that," Gage said Thursday.

AFGE members late last month voted to endorse Kerry for president.

To aid active military service members, Edwards said he and Kerry plan to invest in new equipment and technology and would like to double special forces. With more than 140,000 troops in Iraq and 20,000 in Afghanistan, the military is stretched too thin, he stated.

Edwards also emphasized the Democratic ticket's strength on homeland security, touting his own experience as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and vowing to "protect our ports, safeguard our chemical plants, and support our firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians." The Democrats' vice presidential nominee promised to act swiftly on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States' recommendations for reforming the intelligence community.

"We are approaching the third anniversary of Sept. 11, and I can tell you that when we're in office, it won't take us three years to get the reforms in our intelligence we need to protect our country," Edwards said. "We will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to make sure that never happens again."

In discussing his plan for "one America" where citizens would enjoy equal access to education, health care and economic prosperity, Edwards referred to Kerry's proposal to finance tax credits in part by cutting federal contractors and eliminating government waste.

"I heard that loud and clear," Gage said, adding that he is pleased Edwards "threw in a line" about the plan. The contracting out of federal jobs is one of AFGE's big "bugaboos," he said.

The union is entrenched in a battle against the Bush administration's competitive sourcing program, a management initiative aimed at allowing contractors to bid on thousands of federal jobs considered commercial in nature.

But to industry groups, Kerry's plan to cut contractors is ill-conceived and contrary to his campaign's statements of support for private sector innovation. The Kerry-Edwards team should avoid a "knee-jerk reaction" against contractors and should take a comprehensive look at the entire government workforce before proposing any cuts, said Cathy Garman, vice president for public policy at the Contract Services Association, an industry group based in Arlington, Va.

With the help of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, CSA has designed a Web site to inform voters of candidates' views on federal procurement policy, including competitive sourcing. The site focuses mainly on candidates for House and Senate seats, and lists voting records on legislation of interest to contractors.

Federal employee unions also have designed Web pages listing candidates' voting records on issues of importance to members. For instance, the AFGE Web site has a section devoted to the 2004 election.

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