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Veterans equity bill still hangs by a thread in US Congress

August 1, 2007 3:06pm
WASHINGTON, DC - Both the Senate and House committees on veterans affairs of the US Congress may have passed the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill, but the measure much-awaited by thousands of Filipino war veterans and their relatives still hangs by a thread.

Because of the not-so-bright possibility of having the bill enacted this year, US-based Filipino veterans will further intensify lobbying to American senators and congressmen for support even while Congress is on a month-long recess beginning next week.

Eric Lachica, executive director of the 4,000-strong American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, said the courting would particularly be directed at Republicans. Proponents of the bill are Democrats.

In the Senate, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho refused to adopt the figures that Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (Democrat-Hawai'i) proposed to give to Filipino World War II veterans.

Akaka, chairman of the Senate committee on veterans affairs, wanted single veterans, whether they are in the US mainland or in the Philippines, to receive $3,600 per year; veterans with one dependent, $4,500 per year; and the veterans' surviving spouse, $2,400 per year.

"Sen. Craig wanted to reduce that to at least $200 per month ($2,400 per year) per veteran because again, of the issue of standard of living in the Philippines," said Lachica.

"So the dialogue continues because we wanted this bill to be passed this year and to have a bi-partisan support. We don't want this bill to be a political football for lawmakers," he added.

Even though 87 out of 100 senators have supported the bill "in principle," a number of conservative Democrats are still wary about the amount of compensation the Filipino veterans deserve.

"Once the Senate passes the bill, it's almost like a done deal," Lachica said.
In the Lower House, Lachica said his group is lobbying with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to commit to appropriate money for the bill's implementation.

"Getting the House approval will be more challenging. Speaker Pelosi has to commit to a budget item," Lachica said. "It might be hard to justify the budget because some congressmen might say it's too much."

Under California Rep. Bob Filner's proposal, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will need $110 million in the first year of the H.R. 760's implementation and $900 million over 10 years. Filner is the chairman of the House committee on veterans affairs.

This covers flat-rate pension for Filipino veterans both in the US and in the Philippines: $8,400 annually if they are married; $6,000 annual if they are not married and $3,600 for their widows.

Meanwhile, Akaka's computation showed the VA will need an initial at least $36 million in the first year of the bill's implementation and $400 million over a 10-year period.

VA's estimated however, of needing $518 million to implement equity bill. This covers $510 million in medical and memorial benefits and
$8.8 million in administrative costs.

The $518 million does not include the 100 percent increase in the VA's operations cost of $6.3 million in Manila once the equity bill is passed.

Even though the House version of the equity bill provides for higher compensation, Lachica said, "We will accept Akaka's formula because it's a realistic and politically doable formula."

Besides the budget issue, Rep. Stephen Buyer (R-Indiana) will also call on his fellow Republicans to strike H.R. 760 following its controversial passage during a markup session held on July 17.

Of the 425 congressmen, 202 are Republicans.

Although the Democrats have the majority, Republicans might still prevail in the event not all Democrats vote in favor of the equity bill.

During the July 17, 2007 House committee on veterans affairs markup hearing, Filner earned the ire of Republicans when he did not allow some of them to present their amendments to the bill.

Buyer even threatened to bring the matter to the ethics committee. But Filner's camp insisted that Republicans erred in putting amendments on the spot, thereby depriving other lawmakers the time to review their proposal.

At the very least, Lachica said they are lucky that VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who strongly opposed the equity bill, has resigned.

The equity bill seeks to grant some 18,155 Filipinos, who fought under the American flag during World War II, with health care, service-connected disability compensation, non-service connected disability compensation, dependent indemnity compensations, death pension and full burial benefits.

The equity bill is scheduled to be brought to the US Senate and House floors after Congress resumes session on September 4, 2007. Congress goes into recess on August 6, 2007.

Lobbying efforts

On July 26, Filipino veterans from San Diego, Sacramento, Seattle, Philadelphia, Jersey City, New York, Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC visited US senators and congress on Capitol Hill and thanked them for supporting bills intended to recognize their sacrifices during World War II.

The veterans also approached other American legislators to join in supporting the swift enactment of the benefits equity bill as well as the reunification bill that would allow their immediate relatives to join them in the US.

"We are happy we won commitments from our senators and congress members to quickly pass our bills...hopefully in September," said Jose Nuega, 81, president of the Sacramento-based Association of Filipino American Veterans and Families.

Nuega, a WWII Purple Heart medal recipient, more than 30 coalition leaders for two "action days" of lobbying on Capitol Hill.

They visited the offices and met the key staff of the following senators: Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Jim Bunning (R-KY), Larry Craig (R-ID), Arlen Specter (R-PA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Robert Menendez (NJ), Patty Murray (D-WA), Barack Obama (D-IL), Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and others.

In the House, they consulted with the legislative counsel of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose CA), who briefed them on the positive prospects of Filipino Veterans Family Reunification bill H.R. 1287 of Rep. Mazie
Hirono(D-HI) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA).

In the evening, the ACFV leaders celebrated the 66th anniversary of the 1941Military Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt drafting Philippine Commonwealth soldiers into U.S. armed service.

They were guests at the reception of the Philippine Congressional Caucus at the House Rayburn Building hosted by Philippine Ambassador Willy Gaa, Gen. Delfin Lorenzana, Embassy Office of Veterans Affairs and the NaFFAA federation chaired by Alma Kern.

The 70-member strong caucus is co-chaired by Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista CA) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista CA) who both are sponsors of the H.R. 760 Equity and H.R. 1287 Family bills.

Several congress members attended the reception: Mike Honda (D-Campbell CA), Hilda Solis (D-El Monte CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach CA), Bobby Scott (D-Richmond VA), Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU), Joe Wilson (R-SC) and others.

On Saturday, August 4, at 5 P.M., the Philippine American Veterans Organization (PAVO) and the Pan American Concerned Citizens Action League (PaCCAL) will hold a community forum in Jersey City, New Jersey at the Our Lady of Victories School Auditorium (corner of Ege and Westside Avenues) for the roundtable discussion and action plans of the students and the veterans with Lachica.

ACFV leaders will intensify grassroots lobbying campaign to pass their bills before congressional session ends in October.

On May 24, the full Senate overwhelmingly voted (87 to 9) for the Filipino Veterans Family Reunification amendment of Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI). However the underlying controversial Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill was blocked.

On June 27, the Senate VA Committee approved and included their equity pension bill introduced by Senators Akaka and Inouye of Hawaii in the omnibus bill S. 1315.

On July 17, the House Veterans Affairs Committee chaired by Filner approved the Filipino Veterans Equity Act, H.R. 760. - GMANews.TV
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