WASHINGTON DC – The Filipino WW II veterans’ long struggle to rescind the Rescission Act of 1946 faces a major bar in this presidential election year. “The Filipino veterans are unfortunately caught in the crosshairs of the anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner mindset of the Republicans,” a veteran Capitol Hill lobbyist observed.
It's a totally different political climate from last year when the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill - which seeks to restore the pension rights of the surviving Filipino WW II veterans (currently 6,000 in the US and 12,000 in the Philippines) that were rescinded when the US Congress passed the Rescission Act on October 18, 1946 - made unprecedented gains.
For the first time ever, the Veterans Affairs committees of both the US Senate and the US House conducted hearings and passed their separate versions, getting them set for a full vote in the floors of both Houses of Congress. Once they pass both Houses, a conference committee will then be formed to reconcile versions of the bill (Senate bill S. 1315 and House bill HR 760) and the emerging compromise will then be set for a vote. Once passed, the bill will then go the White House for the signature of the US President.
On November 7 and again on December 12 last year, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) sought unanimous consent from his senate colleagues for his bill to go straight to a floor vote without fear of cloture (a filibuster). On both occasions, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) rebuffed his request.
It wasn’t just Craig’s objection that caused the bill to fail but the reason for his objection is the “crosshairs” problem of the bill this year. In his objection, Sen. Craig said: "First of all, they do not live in this country, they are not US citizens. They are taking money away from our veterans. That is the 'Robin Hood in reverse' effect. At least Robin Hood, when he took money, left it in Nottingham. He spread it out amongst his own. Here we are taking money from our own and sending it all the way to the Philippines."
Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), the ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said providing pension benefits to Filipino veterans is “the wrong priority at the wrong time” because the U.S. is now at war and the US government should focus on the needs of U.S. citizens and those injured in battle.” This bill is also being used as a vehicle for a provision that would take money away from helping veterans of war -- of the war on terror – and instead sending the money overseas," Burr said.
Sen. Burr this past week introduced a bill that deletes pension benefits for Filipinos veterans in the Philippines and instead boosts funds for grants to wounded U.S. veterans, providing retroactive payments between $25,000 and $100,000 to all disabled veterans who were injured since 2001 -- and not just in a war zone.
Sen. Burr is confident of winning a debate in the Senate Veterans Committee between Akaka’s bill which would provide veterans pension to Filipino WW II vets including 12,000 Philippine citizens living in the Philippines and his bill which would provide benefits to US citizens who are veterans of the current war on terror.
The Filner Equity bill that passed the House Veterans Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Filner (D-California), proposed a $90-M annual package that would provide $900 a month to US based Filvets and $500 a month pension toPhilippine based veterans. The Akaka Equity Bill that passed the US Senate Veterans Committee proposed a $50-M package that would provide $900 a month pension to the 6,000 Filvets in the US and $300 a month pension to Filipino veterans in the Philippines.
Sen. Craig and Sen. Burr previously proposed a $20-M package that would provide $900 a month to US based veterans and $100 a month pension to each Philippine veteran and $100 a month to the veteran’s spouse. But Craig and Burr withdrew their compromise offer on December 13, 2007 because of opposition from US veterans groups like the American Legion.
Seeking a congressional compromise that would ensure passage of the bill has been complicated, according to one congressional staffer, by the mixed messages coming from the Filipino American community. Veterans’ groups like the American Coalition for the Filipino Veteran (ACFV) favor working on a bill that can actually get through Congress while veterans support groups like the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE) “oppose any efforts to weaken the (Filner) bill”.
As of a week ago, Filner’s equity bill had only110 sponsors in the House, 96 Democrats and 14 Republicans led by former lead sponsor Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). This week, the number was reduced by 2, with the death of long-time supporter Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) and the decision by West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) to have her name removed from the list of sponsors.
The Akaka bill has only 16 sponsors, 15 Democrats and 1 Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Akaka is confident that he can get all the Democratic senators to support his bill.
The House is waiting for the Senate to act on the Akaka bill before the House will consider the Filner bill and schedule it for a floor vote. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi assumed the House leadership after the November 2006 Democratic sweep, she quickly passed the PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) rule which compels new spending or tax changes to not add to the federal deficit and for new bills to be either "budget neutral" or offset with savings derived from existing funds.
Rep. Filner insists that there are funds available for his bill from veterans’ earmarks that were not used. But Filner has been asked to identify which veteran’s earmarks he is referring to as other veterans groups are also eyeing the same pot. Speaker Pelosi and Rep. Filner have to work together to identify the pot from which the Filipino veterans bill can be funded.
Meanwhile, American Legion officials have expressed a willingness to meet with Philippine Ambassador Willie Gaa to discuss dropping their opposition to the equity bill if the bill's supporters can assure the Legion that funds for the bill will not be taken away from funds for US veterans.
As the debate over the equity bill continues on Capitol Hill, the American Coalition for the Filipino Veterans paused to mourn 15 of its veteran members who died just in the last month. These veterans had actively participated in various mass actions in support of the bill but sadly will not be around to see it passed.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is thanked for her cosponsorship of the Filipino Veterans Equity and Family Reunification bills by (L to R) Rodel Rodis, San Franciso Community College Board Trustee, Angelesio Tugado, 86, DC leader of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, and Edna Rodis, R.N. in the Washington office on February 12, 2008. (ACFV photo by Eric Lachica).