WASHINGTON — The 112th Congress has been labeled "do-nothing" with good reason: It's passed fewer bills than almost any Congress since World War II.
But amid the partisan gridlock, lawmakers have quietly approved a number of important bills designed to improve life for veterans. And they've done it at a time of tight spending, when almost nothing passes that isn't fully paid for.
Those legislative victories for veterans have been possible largely because of the friendly relationship between one of the most conservative Republicans in the House and a liberal Democrat in the Senate.
Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington barely knew each other when they took over their respective chambers' Veterans Affairs committees in January 2011. But over the next 22 months, they worked together and with other lawmakers to help veterans get training for new jobs, better mental health care and faster action on disability claims.
"She's as far left as I am to the right," Miller said of Murray. "But we were able to forge a cooperative relationship that I believe is very beneficial for the veterans community."
Advocates say the two also have been forceful in pressuring the Obama administration to protect veterans programs from spending cuts that will take effect next year as part of the "fiscal cliff" if Democrats and Republicans don't agree on a deficit reduction plan.
Miller and Murray also nudged the Department of Veterans Affairs to move faster on implementing measures adopted earlier, including a 2010 law that provides families of seriously injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with training to become caregivers for those veterans.
Such teamwork is rare in a Congress "notorious for a lack of cooperation," said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"They have been able to come together on a lot of issues where otherwise their party would just not be interacting," he said.
Among the legislation that Murray and Miller have worked together to pass:
—The VOW to Hire Heroes Act that will provide at least $1.6 billion over the next decade to retrain veterans for the job market. Part of the law provides up to 12 months of Montgomery GI Bill benefits to unemployed veterans between 35 and 60.
—The Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention and Health Care Enhancement Act, which requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to track sexual assault at VA medical facilities following a government report exposing the problem. Another provision created a program to help veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury.
—The Veterans' Benefits Act of 2011, which established a retraining program for employees of the Veterans Benefits Administration to help speed action on claims for compensation and pension benefits.
Congress also has approved money to build several major medical facilities requested by the Obama administration, including $222 million for a mental health building at the VA Medical Center in Seattle, $155.2 million for a spinal cord injury center at the VA Medical Center in Dallas, and $41 million to renovate the surgical suite and operating rooms at the VA Medical Center in Miami.
"The economic condition and the whole political landscape of the last two years would lead you to think that a whole lot's not going to be done," said Ray Kelley, director of national legislative service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "(But) quite a bit got done for veterans."
There could be more still.
Murray was on the Senate floor Wednesday championing a proposal to increase veterans' access to mental health treatment. That could be part of a defense authorization bill Congress is expected to vote on soon.
Neither Miller nor Murray served in the military, which isn't unusual. Only 22% of congressional lawmakers have served — the smallest percentage since at least World War II.
But both have a deep interest in veterans issues for different reasons: Murray did an internship in a VA psychiatric ward as a student while Miller's Florida Panhandle district includes more than 110,000 veterans — one of every six constituents.
The non-partisan news magazine National Journal ranked Miller as one of the ten most conservative House members in 2011. It ranked Murray the 22nd most-liberal senator. As chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Murray also led her party's effort to retain control of the Senate.
But the two said that gap in ideology didn't hamper their work for veterans.
"We were pragmatic and we welcomed and asked for ideas from both sides of the aisle," Murray said. "Chairman Miller was really good to work with. He didn't view this through a partisan lens. He and I both viewed it through, 'How can we do what we need to do for these thousands of men and woman who served our country and are struggling with so many things?'"
The VOW Act, for example, incorporates proposals from both Miller and Murray. Miller wanted the bill to focus on retraining older veterans while Murray advocated for tax credits for businesses that hire veterans.
Their efforts have been boosted by Congress' deeply bipartisan support for veterans. Few on Capitol Hill want to be seen as saying no to returning warriors.
"Members of Congress truly do hold veterans in high regard," Kelley said. "They're the ones that send them to war, right? They feel that they need to take care of these women and men when they come home."
- Gannett Washington BureauShare