Sen. Tom Coburn is taking political heat this week for blocking a vote on a bill that would significantly expand access to health care for American veterans, despite broad bipartisan support for the measure.
Using a Senate procedure known as a "hold," Coburn (R-OK) has single-handedly stopped the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2009 from moving forward, and in the process exposed himself to accusations of hypocrisy, acting "illogically" and acting "shamefully."
The bill is designed to address the health needs of at least some of the roughly 1.5 million US veterans who are not currently covered by the military's health system. It would also provide assistance to veterans' caregivers.
Coburn argues he cannot allow the bill to proceed because it doesn't address how its $3.7-billion tab will be paid for. The Oklahoma senator is known as a fierce fiscal conservative, but critics of his move to block the veterans' bill say he is acting hypocritically, because he has in the past voted in favor of emergency war spending bills that had much larger tabs than the vets' bill.
"Sen. Coburn's rule on that, of course, did not constrain him from voting for funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that made this veterans' bill necessary," MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said Wednesday night. "Funding for wars that wasn't offset by anything."
Added Maddow: "Those wars which Sen. Coburn was perfectly happy to vote to pay for with absolutely no explanation of how we would cover those costs created 1.7 million new American veterans. He is now on principle not willing to pay for taking care of those veterans."
Maddow quoted Coburn as saying that "90 percent" of veterans would agree with his stance against the bill. But, as the Marine Corps Times notes, 13 military and veterans' advocacy groups have banded together to pressure Coburn to let the bill move forward.
"It's shameful and it's outrageous," US House Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) told Maddow. A former US Navy rear admiral, Sestak said: "We ask these men and women, my fellow vets, to go overseas and protect our lives and then they come home and he doesn't want to protect them?"
Equally strong words came from Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich: "There is no excuse for not supporting our veterans and their caregivers. They have earned it and they have earned better than what they have been provided up to date. The hold is unjustified and obstructing the Senate from fulfilling its obligations to our veterans."
Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Coburn's move "illogical."
“Where was he when we were spending a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq?” Reid asked. “That wasn’t paid for. I didn’t hear him stopping the bill from going forward at that time. I think he should become more logical and understand we have people who are suffering.”
Sestak suggested that Coburn may be willing to take the controversial position because he has been conditioned by Washington's attitude that only military strength is a reflection of a strong society -- an interesting point for a former naval admiral to make.
"It's what irks me most about Washington, DC," he said. "Somehow they think strength is purely military force, not understanding it's our people, and they have forgotten that, particularly in this case."
On Wednesday, Veterans Day, researchers at Harvard University published a study showing that 2.266 veterans died last year due to a lack of health insurance.
This video is from MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, broadcast Nov. 11, 2009.