Saturday, May 24, 2008

FilVets Equity Bill Vote Delayed

It was an emotional roller coaster ride for the Filipino WW II veterans this past week as they rode high hopes that the House version of S.1315 - which incorporates the Filipino veterans' equity bill approved by the US Senate - would come for a floor vote in the House on May 21. The timing would have been perfect coming the week just before Memorial Day when Americans traditionally remember and honor veterans.

The Speaker's plan, as they were told, was to present the House version of S.1315 for a floor vote under a Suspension of the Rules call which requires 290 House votes (2/3rds of 435 total members) to get the bill considered without killer amendments that would only delay if not defeat the bill. This would also ensure that the bill would be veto-proof.

As the veterans huddled in the halls of the Capitol anxiously waiting for the vote, they heard the news from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office that there would no vote on the veterans' bill on that day. The disappointed veterans wondered what could have caused the vote to be postponed.

Was Speaker Pelosi worried that there were not enough Republicans willing to support the bill? Rep. Darrell Issa ( R-Vista CA ) and Ben Gilman, the former Republican chair of the House International Relations Committee and currently a Philippine government lobbyist for the Filvets bill, had assured Pelosi that there were 74 House Republicans who would vote for the bill. The American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV) confirmed earlier the solid commitment of 27 Republicans.

Was Speaker Pelosi worried that she and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) did not have all 230 House Democrats in lock step behind the bill especially among the 51 members of the conservative Blue Dog Caucus some of whom have echoed Republican concerns about "giving money to foreigners"?

Just the day before on May 20, Speaker Pelosi had addressed Democratic House members to firm up support for the bill telling them "I'm very committed to it because it is the right thing to do and we do not want any more time to pass by."

But was there another reason for the delay perhaps? Could a letter from San Francisco Veterans Affairs Commissioner Regalado Baldonado to Speaker Pelosi denouncing S.1315 have played a role in the vote delay?

The Baldonado letter declared S. 1315 to be "woefully insufficient" as it would provide the 14,000 Filvets in the Philippines with $300 a month pension while the 6,000 Filvets in the US would be entitled to $900 a month. It urged Speaker Pelosi to support a House companion bill that would provide "full recognition and benefits to Filipino WW II veterans residing in and outside the United States ."

"We cannot waiver in our position or tolerate any deviation from equal treatment for all of our Filipino WW II veterans," the Baldonado letter asserted.

Speculation about the role of the Baldonado letter in postponing the vote caused a number of veterans in Washington DC to call Baldonado in San Francisco and to ask him about his letter. The DC veterans pointed out to Baldonado that the Veterans Federation of the Philippines (VFP), which represents the 14,000 Filvets in the Philippines, fully backs S.1315 which would provide $375 a month pension to Philippine based veterans who have dependents, $300 a month to those without dependents and $200 a month to their widows.

Baldonado explained to his comrades that he did not write the letter, that it was prepared for him to sign by leaders of the Filipino Veterans Equity Center in San Francisco and by an activist group called Students Action for Veterans Equity (SAVE). He said he did not know that Rep. Filner had abandoned his HR 760 in favor of S.1315.

Delfin Lorenzana, head of the Veterans Affairs Office of the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC , was among those who spoke with Baldonado. "The danger here is that if his letter has been widely circulated," he told the other veterans, "it may have influenced the decision of Pelosi to postpone the vote on S.1315 yesterday, despite the fact that there are more than enough Republican support, because of the conflicting signals she is getting from the Fil-Am community especially in her home district."

On the same day that the veterans in Washington DC were dismayed by news of the postponement, over 100 community leaders in San Francisco gathered at the Philippine Consulate to hear former President Fidel V. Ramos urge the community to support S.1315 as the best chance to get the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill to pass the US Congress.

(Pres. and Mrs. Fidel V. Ramos with SF Consul-General and Mrs. Marciano Paynor, Jr. and WWII Veterans at the SF Philippine Consulate. Photo by George Gange).

In the Open Forum that followed his speech that was moderated by Ben Menor, Atty. Lourdes Tancinco, chair of the Veterans Equity Center (VEC), informed Pres. Ramos that her group did not support S.1315 because, she said, it did not cover all the veterans and at the level they should be entitled to.

Pres. Ramos replied that we cannot get everything we want from the US Congress, not even Pres. George W. Bush can do that, and that we have to be realistic about what is possible and take what we can get. He said we should build on the momentum of 96-1 vote in the US Senate for S.1315 to get a House version passed.

But Jaymee Sagisi of the Students Action for Veterans Equity (SAVE) voiced her disagreement with the position of Pres. Ramos asking him "How can you advocate that Filipino veterans in the Philippines should receive only one third of what US veterans get?" Ramos reiterated his position that we have to be realistic about what can be expected from the US Congress.

"Filipino veterans in the Philippines getting $300 a month, and another $200 a month in widows' benefits, that realistically will happen under S. 1315 is better than a $900 a month dream that will never come," commented veteran Lucio Dimaano.

In the discussions that occurred among members of the audience, it was explained that Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the principal sponsor of the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill in the Senate, recognized that the Filvets bill could not pass if it went out on its own, as the anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican Party was too strong. The only chance of passage was to fold it into an omnibus Veterans' Benefits Enhancement Bill which would affect several veterans programs, including disability compensation, housing, pension, burial, life insurance, and readjustment benefits.

Akaka's advocacy for the Filvets stand alone bill was met with vociferous opposition from Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) and Sen. David Vitter (R-Alabama). They opposed offering benefits to non-US citizen veterans who, Craig said, "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 ."

Filipino veterans expressed concern that if Baldonado and his group succeed in stalling passage of the veterans' benefits enhancement bill, the other non-Filipino veterans groups may likely junk the Filipino veterans equity provision in the bill and move on with their omnibus bill.

Filipino veterans groups are hoping that the Filipino community, including Commissioner Baldonado, will unite to support passage of the House version of S.1315 if and when it comes for a vote on June 3.

Members of the Filipino community are urged to email Speaker Nancy Pelosi and their representatives in Congress to express support for S.1315 by logging on to the website:

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