Veterans healthcare advocates are nervously watching the likely ascent of Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) to chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, fearing the move could mean a reduction in services.
A third-term senator who recently lost a bid to become the Senate majority whip, Mr. Simpson in the past has criticized veterans groups. He has contended that their advocacy of improved care in the Department of Veterans Affairs' 171-hospital system was a way of boosting membership.
As a result, several veterans group representatives, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were wary of the impact Mr. Simpson might have on care at VA hospitals at a time when VA healthcare officials are developing a proposal to streamline and decentralize the system.
"He's not going to hear the voice of the veteran if he doesn't change his attitude," said a representative of one veterans group. "We go (to Capitol Hill) worried about what his attitude is going to be. I don't know what that's going to do for advancing veterans healthcare."
Mr. Simpson is the highest-ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee who has not taken a chairmanship of another committee. Because Senate committee chairmanships are based on seniority, not on election by party members, Mr. Simpson can become chairman if he chooses.
After losing the election for whip to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in a close vote on Dec. 2, Mr. Simpson said he would consider taking the position. Senate staff members last week said he was almost sure to do so.
Veterans groups added that Mr. Simpson is a strong advocate for cutting the federal budget deficit and reducing such entitlement costs as VA healthcare.
The likelihood of deep cuts in many entitlement programs has increased since the election of a Republican majority in Congress on a platform of cutting government spending and the budget deficit.
"I believe his agenda is going to be focusing on reducing the deficit," said a veterans lobbyist, who requested anonymity. "Being the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, his main target would be the Department of Veterans Affairs."
But the veterans groups also stressed that they were willing to smooth over past conflicts and work with Mr. Simpson, who was chairman of the committee the last time the Republicans had control of the Senate in the early and mid-1980s.