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August 20, 2014

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Ensign sticks to principle on money for GI Bill, health scare

Senator’s nay on spending package ‘was an easy vote,’ he says, despite bipartisan support

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On a day when Senate Republicans distanced themselves from an unpopular president to pass a big domestic spending bill that included expanded benefits for troops returning from war, Sen. John Ensign was having none of it.

Seventy-five senators voted in favor of the bill, including all of the Democrats and half of the Republicans. That was nine more votes than needed to override President Bush’s promised veto.

In true Washington fashion, the legislation had something for everyone, including money for post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction and for the hepatitis C crisis in Nevada.

A freshman senator from Tennessee called his opposition to the package “a painful vote for me.”

But for Ensign, it “was an easy vote.” The senator who rode to Congress on a Republican wave in 1994 has rarely strayed from his conservative roots and wasn’t about to Thursday.

Ensign said he isn’t convinced Nevada needs the money to handle the hepatitis C crisis. He declined to support the GI Bill for troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

For all the talk about Nevada’s becoming a more Democratic state, and this being a difficult year for Republicans nationally who hew to their party’s line or align with the president, Ensign has remained consistent.

Many of his peers who voted for the bill face difficult reelections, and Republicans are struggling to moderate their views. But Ensign, who is not up for reelection until 2012, and most of his fellow party leaders held the conservative line on this vote.

“This thing was so loaded up with so much spending,” Ensign said afterward. The items he considered offensive extras included a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits to help those out of work during the economic downturn and a program to help pay the home heating bills of low-income residents.

“I have always been very consistent about caring about our children and our grandchildren and loading up too much debt,” he continued. “This is fiscally irresponsible.”

The domestic spending package was an amendment to the $168 billion bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the new year. The total price tag was $212 billion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tucked $26 million into the bill for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Southern Nevada Health District to handle the hepatitis C scare.

Health officials think 50,000 patients at a Las Vegas outpatient clinic potentially were exposed to hepatitis and HIV through reused syringes and single-dose vials. The CDC director has said the scare could be the “tip of the iceberg” nationwide.

The Health District said its portion, $5.25 million, would go to provide free testing for 15,000 potentially exposed patients who do not have insurance or cannot afford the $200 screening.

The Health District’s spokeswoman said without the funds, “it’ll be more difficult for some individuals to have access.”

The CDC’s share, $21 million, would be used to train local officials to oversee clinics and teach health care professionals proper techniques.

Funding would also go toward a campaign to encourage patients to ask doctors and nurses about their practices. The CDC would also work with companies to design safer devices.

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said, “They’re programs we feel would help the situation.” Some of those programs would be piloted in Nevada.

Reid’s office said if ever there was a Nevada emergency that needed federal assistance, this was it.

But Ensign said his office has not received a convincing breakdown from the Southern Nevada Health District on how it would use the money. The state has redirected money to the district, he said.

“Do they want the money? Yes. Do they need the money is a different story,” Ensign said. Nonetheless, his office is trying to find other money for the district.

The senator’s opposition to the GI Bill, which will offer more money for college to help post-9/11 vets readjust to civil society, wasn’t a financial issue, but a military one.

Ensign, like the Pentagon, worries the beefed-up benefit will cut into the military’s ability to retain troops.

“This bill would actually weaken our military because it encourages people to get out,” he said. “That’s the problem I have with it. He supported a competing GI Bill from Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, that failed to gain traction in the Senate.

Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Ensign “has carved out this position as a budget hawk.”

“Here was a classic congressional move ... How can you vote against the veterans? How can you vote against Hurricane Katrina? Ensign is saying, ‘Enough.’ ”

Herzik said any politician risks backlash from voters for going against the local issues. But, he says, Ensign “doesn’t have to deal with it anytime soon.”

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