by Joseph Pimentel/AJPress
WASHINGTON DC – The US House of Representatives passed a controversial legislation Tuesday, September 23, that would pay Filipino World War II veterans a one-time, lump sum payment opposed to a yearly pension.
H.R. 6897 passed by an overwhelming vote of 392 to 23 without objections.
The bill now goes to a conference committee and compete with S. 1315, the Veterans Enhancement Act, which passed in the House Monday, September 22, but removed the Filipino Equity benefits provision in order to do so – a strategic move by Democratic leaders, according to sources.
The “Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2008″ or H.R. 6897 would make one-time payments of $15,000 to Filipinos who are U.S. citizens and $9,000 to non-citizen Filipino veterans. The Senate passed a bill on veterans’ affairs in April that provided pensions for many of the surviving veterans but has not acted on the House-passed legislation. Senators could take up the House version or meet in conference committee to work out the differences in the two versions of the legislation.
Filipino WWII organization leaders said despite the lump sum’s approval and the passage of S. 1315 without the Filipino equity provision, they are still committed to seeing through S. 1315.
“Our position here in Washington is that we are alarmed by the passage of the two bills S. 1315 and H.R. 6897,” said Eric Lachica, executive director of the Washington DC-based American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV). “We are hopeful that the final version of S. 1315 in the conference committee can add the Filipino Equity provision so our veterans can finally have that official recognition. As for H.R. 6897, we find it unacceptable because it provides no official recognition, too little too late, doesn’t give money to the widows and it’s a quit claim bill that would surrender the veterans rights to future compensation or benefits.”
“We continue to fight for the principles for equity,” added Ben De Guzman, national coordinator of the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE). “We are still committed on working on S. 1315 and to have the committee include the Filipino equity provisions.”
De Guzman also said only 18,115 veterans remain and roughly two-thirds still live in the Philippines.
The Senate bill, S. 1315, passed the Senate earlier this year by an overwhelming vote but since its passage in April, the bill has stalled in the House because of the financial burden the bill carries.
With 18,000 eligible if the bill passes, the bill would allow Filipino WWII veterans residing in the Philippines to be eligible for an annual payment of $3,600 ($300 a month) and married veterans to be eligible for $4,500. The annual payment for surviving spouses would be $2,400.
ACFV Vice President and WWII veteran Franco Arcebal said his fellow veterans are favoring S. 1315.
“Believe me when I tell you that if H.R. 6897 passes none of the veterans would apply for it,” he said. “There’s too much to risk. We would be losing all of our benefits including Social Security Income (SSI), medicare, food bank assistance and house rental assistance.”
De Guzman said while he is pleased that both the Senate and the House finally have passed bills to rectify the situation, questions remain.
“Not the least of it is the amount” for each old soldier, he said. The veterans themselves, he said, “are surprisingly of one voice on this. Traditionally if you ask 11 vets what they think, you get 11 different answers.” They are united in thinking the congressional action is lacking, he said.
Congress was set to adjourn this week but the financial crisis and talks of a $700 billion bailout plan may be what the Filipino Veterans Equity Enhance Act needs to keep it alive.
There are already talks that Congress is extending the session until the end of this month.
Still some are not that optimistic. NAFVE are working on the timetable that if nothing happens by the end of this week, both bills are dead.
“Anything that doesn’t happen by the end of this week that’s it,” said De Guzman. “That’s how we’re looking at it. The reality of it is it’s not officially over until the final gavel adjourns the 110th Congress but in reality we’re working on the timetable that this is the final week to get something done.”
Meanwhile, Lachica and the rest of ACFV officials are planning for last minute mobilization efforts.
“We are trying to organize [Filipino WWII] veterans around the country,” said Arcebal.
Lachica said that it’s time for the community to rally and continue to call their Senators and Representatives.
The Filipino veterans would seem to have a champion in the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, a World War II veteran from Hawaii.
His spokesman, Jesse Broder-Van Dyke, said Akaka was meeting with senators about the veterans. Akaka sponsored the bill that passed the Senate with the pensions intact.