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Senator Patty Murray to chair Committee on Veterans Affairs

Newly named Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Washington's Senior US Senator, Patty Murray, has become the first woman ever appointed as chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Murray replaces Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii as the new committee chair.  According to Rob Hotakainen, Staff writer at the Olympian, Akaka is an 86-year-old veteran of World War II and has headed the committee for the last four years.

“Following in his footsteps is an amazing task, but I am ready to take this on, and I’m very excited,” Murray told the Olympian.

It's a big job. The VA committees for both houses of Congress share jurisdiction over the Veterans Affairs Department, which, s with a $114 billion budget and 300,000 employee is one of the largest federal agencies. It provides benefits checks and medical services to the nation's 22 million veterans, including the thousands coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with mental and physical wounds.

Murray's Republican counterpart in the House, Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, is promising a thorough review of spending for veterans' programs, which he says lack oversight. 

Murray thinks some efficiencies can be achieved.  But she says she will be watching Republicans "like a hawk" to ensure veterans get their financial due.

"As chairman of this committee, I want to make sure that we are the voice and face of veterans. That we advocate for them every day. That we work hard to make sure that they are not denied benefits just by mere fact of paperwork that they can't get through."

She says a top priority is tackling a backlog that often leaves veterans waiting months or even years to get a claim processed.  She also wants to reduce the unemployment rate for veterans, which she says at 20 - 22%  is more than twice as high as for civilians.

Murray is the daughter of a disabled World War II veteran.  She spent time as a college intern working in the psychiatric ward of the VA hospital in Seattle.  She says that experience inspired her to go to bat for veterans at the start of her political career.

“It has been one of the great privileges of my Senate career to fight for veterans like my father - a World War II veteran, or the Vietnam veterans I met interning at the VA in college, or the countless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who I have spoken to about returning home with the visible and invisible wounds of war, " Murray said in a statement she released with the news of her appointment.