Lawmakers debate bill for Filipino vets
The pension for WWII combatants would be a huge financial lift
After a nine-month stalemate, federal lawmakers began debate yesterday on whether the U.S. government should provide special pensions and other benefits to thousands of Filipinos who fought alongside U.S. forces during World War II.
Supporters call it a chance to correct an historic wrong, while opponents say the program would be too costly and come at the expense of U.S. veterans who should be taken care of first.
Discussion in the Senate began after supporters, primarily Democrats, used a procedural move to force a floor debate on the bill, S. 1315, which includes the provisions for Filipino veterans.
A vote is expected today, but could be delayed as lawmakers work out procedures for introducing amendments.
"We must act to ensure that these veterans are not left to live out their twilight years without acknowledgment that their service during World War II is valued," said Sen. Dan Akaka, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, who has fought for the benefits. "I am not going to abandon them without a fight."
The Philippine government estimates there are about 18,000 veterans living in the Philippines who would benefit from the program, which was included in a broader bill known as the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act.
Roughly 120,000 Filipinos were drafted in 1941 to serve alongside U.S. forces in defending the Philippines -- an American commonwealth at the time -- during World War II. Those Filipinos were promised the same veterans benefits as American servicemen, but Congress rescinded the pledge in 1946, when the Philippines gained independence.
Though Filipinos who served directly in the U.S. armed forces and those who now live in the United States qualify for most programs administered by the secretary of Veterans Affairs, many still seek the full benefits that they say were promised to them, including health care, pensions and survivor and burial benefits.
Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking Republican member on the Veterans Affairs Committee, cited debates from the 1940s that he said indicate the United States never promised such benefits, and the care of the Filipino veterans was intended to be a "shared responsibility" of the two countries.
Burr, R-N.C., said his main objection is the cost, estimated at $221 million over 10 years, to provide special pensions for the veterans who live in the Philippines and do not have any disabilities related to their military service.
The special pension, he said, amounts to about $300 a month, and would lift a single Filipino veteran to 1,400 percent over the poverty line in the Philippines, whereas pensions to U.S. veterans living in America lift them to about 10 percent above the U.S. poverty line.
Burr is expected to offer amendments that would strip the provisions for Filipino veterans.
Those who supported the provisions for Filipino veterans included Sens. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, both World War II veterans.
Stevens said he and Inouye recently visited the Philippines and met with some of the veterans who would be affected, noting that the youngest age of any participant is 82.
"They are very much in need of our help," Stevens said. "They deserve what this bill would give them.
"It's a matter of honor -- the honor of the United States is at stake."