May 14–WASHINGTON — For the second time in less than a year, the House unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would extend benefits to Vietnam War sailors who have fought for years to prove they were exposed to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange.
The House voted 410-0 to advance the bill to the Senate, following a vote last year of 382-0.
The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 aims to grant Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to “Blue Water” Navy veterans who served aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships but had been deemed ineligible for the same disability benefits as others who served on the ground and inland waterways. Agent Orange, a dioxin-laden herbicide, has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.
The House approved a similar bill last June in the previous congressional session, but the effort stalled and ultimately failed in the Senate.
Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Phil Roe, R-Tenn., leaders of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, are pleading with the Senate to take the bill up quickly this time. They asked senators to vote and pass the bill by May 27, which is Memorial Day, just less than two weeks away.
“That would be a proper, fitting tribute,” Takano said.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the Senate would schedule a vote on the bill. There remained questions of whether the chamber would wait for the end of an ongoing court battle regarding Blue Water Navy veterans.
The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 9-2 in January that Blue Water Navy veterans are eligible for VA disability compensation and other benefits.
However, the Department of Justice could appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
“It’s sort of got everybody in a freeze frame right now. Do we go ahead? What do we do?” Roe said Tuesday during a news conference prior to the House vote. “If we codify this in law, then [the VA has] their marching orders. There’s absolutely a simple way to solve this.”
Takano argued the legislation was the “quickest and clearest route to delivering benefits.”
“I would urge the Senate not to wait to see what the Justice Department decides to do,” he said.
Some of the hesitation last year was caused by cost concerns. At the time, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and several previous secretaries opposed the measure, citing high costs and insufficient scientific evidence.
Like last year’s bill, the measure that passed the House on Tuesday would increase fees for nondisabled veterans who apply through the VA home loan program in order to help offset costs.
Eight national veterans organizations issued a letter Tuesday in support of the bill, writing it was “time to correct the injustice.”
However, Military-Veterans Advocacy pulled its support, arguing the bill would inadvertently limit the number of veterans who would be eligible for benefits if the court ruling were to stand.
John Wells, director of Military-Veterans Advocacy and one of the attorneys involved in the court case, has asked lawmakers to use broader language.
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