by Joseph Pimentel/Asianjournal.com
WASHINGTON DC – The US Senate Thursday voted to pass S. 1315, the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007, a bill that also provides for Filipino World War II veterans to receive equity veterans affairs (VA) pension.
The Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of S. 1315 by a vote of 96 to 1. The lone dissenting vote came from Sen. David Vitter (R-LA).
“The Filipino veterans of World War II fought bravely under U.S. military command, helping us win the war only to lose their veteran status by an Act of Congress. I commend my colleagues for supporting those veterans who stood with us,” said Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee after the vote.
“I am also very pleased that the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007 can finally move forward,” said Akaka. “This bill makes needed improvements to veterans’ benefits by expanding and increasing support for veterans, their families, and their survivors. I urge my colleagues in the House to act swiftly on this much needed bill.”
S. 1315 is a bill that would enhance life insurance benefits for disabled veterans, burial allowances and housing grants, and provides for $221 million in new pension benefits for Filipino WWII veterans. There are less than 18,000 surviving Filipino WWII soldiers, 13,000 of which still reside in the Philippines.
The historic vote comes three days after the Senate motioned to invoke cloture on the bill and nine months since the bill moved out of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee. The Senate had 30 hours to debate the bill, a time that most pundits close to the situation felt Republicans were going to negotiate with Democratic leaders for a compromise regarding the “special pension compensation” for Filipino WWII veterans still residing in the Philippines.
Under S. 1315, veterans residing in the Philippines would receive a smaller pension than those residing in the US to account for differences in cost-of-living in the two countries.
Akaka proposed that single Filipino WWII veterans residing in the Philippines would be eligible for an annual payment of $3,600 ($300 a month) and married veterans would be eligible for $4,500. The annual payment for surviving spouses would be $2,400, according to the Congressional Budget Office Cost Estimate of the S. 1315 bill. Filipino WWII veterans residing in the US would receive the same wages as their American counterparts.
Pundits expected Senate Republican leaders to offer an amendment to the bill to lower the $300 monthly rate for Filipino veterans residing outside the US to $150 or $200.
However, there was no compromise. During the Thursday morning session, Ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Richard Burr (R-NC) proposed an amendment to S. 1315 that would have eliminated any type of VA pension to Filipino WWII veterans residing in the Philippines and deflect the money to other VA programs.
“An individual [veteran or survivor] who resides outside the United States shall not, while so residing, be entitled to a pension,” read an excerpt of the proposed amendment. The Senate struck down Burr’s amendment by a vote of 41 to 56. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives.
“The Senate has just made a huge, historic step forward for Filipino WWII veterans,” said Ben De Guzman, the coordinator of the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE) to the Asian Journal from Washington D.C. “Now, it’s up to the House [of Representatives] to do their part.”
For the past year, Congressman Bob Filner (D-CA) has maintained that he would not introduce his version of the Filipino Veterans Equity Act to the US House of Representatives until the Senate passed their version.
Now that the Senate did their part, it’s a matter of adopting the Senate version of the bill as the House version, said De Guzman.
“Akaka has made it easier for Filner,” said De Guzman. “Filner just needs to adopt the Senate version so there won’t be any complications.”
Executive Director of the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans (ACFV) Eric Lachica agrees with De Guzman. Both men are cautiously optimistic about the future of the Filipino WWII veterans’ bill.
Lachica said that proponents of the FilVet Equity bill should be worried about what President George Bush, who is against the bill, will do if it comes to his desk. Bush has veto power. He and other Republicans feel that the money reserved for Filipino veterans outside the US would be better served to help American soldiers.
“Bush did mention that he would not veto the bill,” said Lachica. “He promised [Philippine] President [Gloria] Arroyo last year that if the bill passes the Senate and the House, he would sign it into law. Let’s see if he lives up to that promise.”
Lachica said that another important person to consider is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“We need her on board to fully support the bill,” he said.
De Guzman said that now that the bill is moving forward, it’s time for proponents of the bill to “take a deep breath and thank their elected officials.”
“Thank and fax all of your elected officials,” he said. “Write them, fax them, call them, and thank them for all of their support. Once you’re finished, there’s still more work to do. We want this to go all the way.”