Senators debate Filipino veterans’ pension measure
U.S. senators sparred Thursday during a floor debate over whether to pay long-promised pension benefits to Filipinos who fought for the United States in World War II.
Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has sponsored a measure that would provide Filipino veterans with the pension benefits they were promised when they joined the war effort. Congress took away the benefit in 1946.
Filipinos fought against Japan during World War II under the U.S. flag as part of the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East. The United States, which controlled the Philippines as a commonwealth at the time, was responsible for Philippine foreign affairs and national defense.
"These veterans have been denied these benefits for over 50 years. I believe it is time to give these elderly veterans the benefits that they earned and so richly deserve," Akaka said in a speech on the Senate floor.
The pension provision, which would cost about $24 million in its first year, is included in a broader bill called the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007 that passed the committee in June. It still hasn't come up for a full Senate vote.
But the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said providing pension benefits to Filipino veterans is the wrong priority at the wrong time because the United States is now at war.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told lawmakers the 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.
Burr introduced on Thursday his own version of the bill that deletes pension benefits for Filipinos veterans and instead boosts funds for grants to wounded U.S. veterans.
For example, he said his bill would provide retroactive payments between $25,000 and $100,000 to all disabled veterans who were injured since 2001 -- and not just in a war zone.
It would also increase grants to help wounded veterans make their homes wheelchair accessible and otherwise user-friendly for the disabled.
Burr has been blocking debate on the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007. But on Thursday he said he's ready to debate the merits of his bill against the legislation passed by the committee.
Filipino veterans who helped resist the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in World War II already receive pension benefits if they live in the United States.
But Washington hasn't awarded those same pensions to Filipinos who live in their homeland.
The bill the committee approved would award $3,600 per year to each individual veteran, or $4,500 per year to each married veteran.
Some senators have argued the benefit is too generous given the low cost of living in the Philippines.
But Hawaii's Akaka argues it's fair given the veterans, who are now all in their 80s and 90s, have received nothing thus far in their lives, said the senator's spokesman, Jesse Broder Van Dyke.